The Power of Words

Written by Pamela Carvell, January 2018.

In a month when there have been two much-publicised cases of people being offended by the use of one word towards them, it raises the question of ‘does one word really matter?’.  I am referring to the female passenger on Virgin Trains who objected to being called ‘honey’ by a member of staff when she was complaining about seat allocations on the train and Will Young being called a ‘poofter’ by a London bus driver. Research from 1967 by Dr Albert Mehrabian is still universally quoted, whether by business consultants, body language experts or lifestyle magazines, when assessing the impact that words have in any communication. He concluded that words contributed a mere 7% to the communication, with tone of voice accounting for 38% and non-verbal communication (i.e. facial expression and body language) 55%. Surprisingly there are no more recent studies, as even Mehrabian himself says that the percentages are only relevant if there is incongruence in the communication i.e. you don’t really mean what you are saying. And, only if there is no existing relationship between the 2 parties! Furthermore, his sample was in no way a representative one, comprising solely 30 female undergraduates! However, percentages aside, it is generally accepted that words are the least impactful part of a communication. This begs the question, as to why do we then get offended by the words that someone uses towards us? Do the words really matter, or when we complain about the words, is it really the words that are bothering us, or the way they were delivered? You can ask the same question about cyber-bullies, who make threats solely in words, and solely on-line. Interestingly, some reaction to the above two cases, including the initial response from Virgin, suggested that there is nothing whatsoever wrong in being called honey or pet, and they are really terms of endearment.

I am of the generation that was brought up believing that ‘sticks and stones may break my bones, but nicknames never hurt me’. Physically words can not harm you, but neurologically they can, as your reaction to them may harm you emotionally. Many of us can choose not to let a negative reaction occur in ourselves if someone says something hurtful, critical or threatening to us. But in many people a reaction is triggered that they feel helpless in dealing with. This will often have been caused by historical incidents and will be deeply engrained in the brain. Abusive words that we experience as a child have a particularly deep impact, especially if they come from someone we look up to or respect, such as a parent or teacher. If, as a six year old your teacher humiliated you in front of the class i.e. all your friends, by telling you that you were an idiot who would never amount to anything, those words and that experience may stay with you for life. Someone, even jokingly, telling you as an adult that you are an idiot will bring those historical feelings of hurt, humiliation & low self-esteem to the front of your mind again.

This all raises the question, if the person talking doesn’t mean any offense, who is to blame if the recipient takes offense, and is the talker actually being offensive?

Deconstructing a Communication

It is currently the ‘in’ thing for chefs to deconstruct dishes, so I’d like to deconstruct a simple communication between 2 people, consisting of just one word.

Before you say something, you have to think it. That is how the human brain works. And our thoughts are affected by our previous experiences and current situation.

As you say something, you continue to think. And those thoughts may be visual (pictures), auditory (sounds) or Kinaesthetic (feelings), or a mixture of all three, a bit like a video.

As you say something, your thoughts will influence the tone of voice, facial expressions and body language that you use. Those thoughts may be about the other person and what you are saying, or you may be distracted in your thoughts by something that has happened or is going to happen in your life, or even simply in your mind.

The word you say automatically triggers a ‘thinking’ reaction in the other person. Those thoughts may be visual, auditory or kinaesthetic, or all three. If you are face to face it is important to see that reaction.

Their reaction to the word you say, may not be so much about you and you saying it, but rather the thoughts and feelings it produces in them.

You observe and interpret that reaction.

Thus there is lots of room for miscommunication or misunderstandings.

Society guides us as to what things are not morally acceptable to say to each other, and this is constantly evolving. The fact that something was acceptable 30 years ago does not make it acceptable now, even if said by someone of mature years. The fact that when I was a child wearing a seat belt was not compulsory doesn’t mean that I can use that as an excuse for not wearing one now, any more than I can use that excuse for using words that are no longer acceptable in a modern society.

As you say something you should also be observing the other person, both so that you can observe their reaction and listen to what they say in reply. Sadly, too often nowadays people are so self-obsessed, or distracted by their mobile phone, that this part of the communication gets seriously overlooked. So, you don’t observe how they have reacted to what you have said, nor do you listen carefully to what they say next. Observe on TV how often everyone is talking over everyone else (one of my pet hates!). That is because they are totally focussed on getting their points across, not listening to the other people.

The Importance of Intent & Context

So, if you say something, and mean no offense, but the other person takes offense, where does the blame lie for that breakdown in communication?

Before you say something, part of your thought process should be about how you want the other person to feel and react and how you think they will feel and react, as well as what sort of impression you want to give the other person. The context is also very important. In most professional fields there is an ‘unwritten code of conduct’ and there is the issue of respect. Being respectful of others also impacts what will and won’t cause offense, as does the relationship between the 2 people. If one person is the customer, or the teacher, or the boss, the acceptability of certain words is different to say between friends.

If two friends call each other ‘honey’ or ‘hun’ that is 100% acceptable, but if one person is a customer, it is probably not OK to call them that. However, the intention of the person using the word may be nothing other than caring, as they may well be treating the customer as they would their wife, sister or daughter, whom they call ‘honey’. Especially if the customer is annoyed or distressed in any way, such a term of endearment is likely to reflect caring. But, the interpretation by the recipient is of it being patronising. By subsequently complaining, it is highly likely to confuse and offend the person who said it, especially if they have been trained in a customer service ethos that you should treat customers as you would your closest family member, or as you would expect to be treated. So, to me, one of the litmus tests, is would you be happy if you or your partner or mother were talked to in that way, or using that word.

The Will Young situation is then completely different. If you take on board everything I’ve said above, you will realise that there is no situation in which it is OK to call someone that.

So, using words is a minefield!

And we live in a world where much communication isn’t so much fake, as blatantly inaccurate. How often do we hear people say things like ‘my heart literally broke’ or ‘I literally fell apart’. No, you didn’t, otherwise you’d be dead! Newscasters and journalists all too often use an absolute term like everyone or everywhere, when what they often mean is the majority of people, or in many places.  Newspaper headlines are littered with superlatives like best or worst, when in fact those things can’t actually be measured. Similarly we are bombarded by generalisations, especially as we group people together by virtue of their race, skin colour, sexuality etc and then generalise about the characteristics of those groups.


The saying ‘ a picture paints a thousand words’ helps to explain the popularity of emojis. And sadly it means we need to pay even less attention to the words we choose, because the emoji shows if we are trying to be funny or angry or sad etc and thus avoid any misunderstandings.

The way to avoid misunderstandings is quite simply down to time, empathy and attention. If you have empathy with the person you are talking to and pay attention to how they are reacting, as well as paying attention to how you yourself are feeling, you will intuitively choose the right words and very importantly your tone of voice and body language will reflect what you are saying. That empathy and attention needs to work both ways. And it takes time. But it isn’t complicated. So, if you care about the person you are communicating with, take time to choose your words carefully and more importantly think carefully how you say them, whilst then observing the other person’s reaction.

This article may be reproduced in part or in full, so long as credit is given to Pamela Carvell and her blog