Language is important.
Language is how we share information from one person or group to another person or group. Whether using gestures and non-verbal body language, specific words, sounds, or pictures, we need language to communicate with each other, because language is what gives symbols meaning.
Here’s a quick peek at the brain science – If we look at the interplay of language and meaning at a neurobiological level, we see that the left brain is our center for language, logic, and linear thought, while the right brain is the center for emotion, meaning, expression; the two halves of the brain must work together for a person to successfully encode and decode their environment.
So, if we don’t have the language or a word for something, we can’t make sense of it or understand some of the context around it. One well-debated example of this is the proposal from the mid-20th century that the Inuit people (colloquially known as Eskimos) can tell the difference between dozens of different types of snow because they have words for each type, whereas those who only have a handful can’t see the subtleties between the types. As in, other folks can almost be “blind” to what the Inuit people can see.
Some may call that a semantical issue, but I think that if we press a little on this, we see that there is an opportunity to express a deep regard or respect for how a community experiences the world, even if it is in a way that we don’t experience it ourselves.
Which brings me to the word please.
The history of the word please in the English language goes back to feudal times when there was a much more visible hierarchy structure in place and the disposition of the ruling person had a great impact on the lives of the people living around him (or her, depending on the situation). When someone asked a ruler to consider or do something, the request would include the language of “if you please” or “if it pleases you,” meaning that the ruler had a choice and that they were going to make a choice based on whether something pleased them or not. There was a social expectation of deference, of putting the needs of the ruler above your own, and living in a space where the happiness and well-being of the ruler were most important.
What we seem to have in current American culture is that some people teach children to say please and thank you in response to their elders, others around them, and sometimes peers, although there has been a lot of pushback about that from different parties. I’m not trying to debate whether or not we should be teaching children to say please or thank you; it’s about understanding why it is important to remember the impact in meaning of the word please when we are intersecting with people who have not been valued or have experienced circumstances in which their well-being and happiness have been denied.
When we use the word please in a request to someone, we are acknowledging the fact that the person has a choice to respond and that we respect that choice. When we don’t use the word please, what we are communicating by our language choice is that we are directing a person to complete a task and we’re positioning ourselves as over them hierarchically. Most of us have no idea that that’s what we’re doing when we don’t ask, but command, and may even be horrified to realize that it has that kind of impact either overtly or covertly, but we have an opportunity to understand that our language has that impact just the same.
If you have never considered this before, it may be very strange to think about how one little word communicates to someone your subconscious perception of power in your situation with them, but it’s not the only way that we experience this type of thing. Another example is using the word “little” in front of a noun, for example, “I heard about your little project.” Even as you read that phrase, maybe you can see how that would be heard by the recipient as diminishing their project, their efforts, or even their worth. Or, for example when we talk about delegation of tasks or instruction that we’re going to give to someone in a group, often we can hear the words the phrase, “I will have someone do this thing,” or, “I will make them go over here.” Inherent in that phrase is the lack of choice on behalf of the other party or person. If I have someone do something, I am saying that they don’t have a choice.
But is that really true? Or, more importantly, is that right for us to continue in that practice?
Denying choices are tricky thing, because but denies the humanity of someone else. We should all be able to have our human-ness respected regardless of our circumstances. Even if a person has made bad choices and needs to have fewer choices in order to participate in society (like for those who are incarcerated for violent crimes), they’re still not an animal to be commanded. By denying choices we are communicating that we are in a ruling position over someone else and can dictate how they experience life. We are saying that their needs don’t matter and ours are more important. We are denying their voice an inherent value as a person.
Now I understand that you may be looking at this and saying, “wow I have no idea how you got there from here,” and I can appreciate that, so let me give a quick example. As a young retail manager (back in the day), I myself had no idea how the language that I was using was communicating to my staff but there was a clear hierarchy and my wants and desires for the business were the most important thing. I just wanted the stock put out on the floor, the money handled correctly, and the customers served. So I communicated that. Directly. Without the word please. Unfortunately, in some of those positions, I stayed a manager, and never functioned as a leader because a leader elevates and develops their team to live into their individual strengths. But that’s a whole other topic I will cover later; my point is that the use of the word please open us up to being denied ourselves, and we need to be OK with that. We need to come to terms with the fact that while our needs may feel large and urgent — I don’t want to diminish that for any of us — we need to accept that we are asking people to subvert their own needs, wants, or desires in order to help us. And maybe we don’t like that because we don’t want to feel like we need help, or that we can be denied the thing that we need help with, but this is a great opportunity for us to get over ourselves, somewhat.
Because we do need each other. None of us can function in a vacuum or on our own, at least not in a healthy way. So, we need to express our vulnerability and interdependence on each other by asking instead of telling.
Since I look at everything through the lens of trauma, this becomes very important when we’re considering our interactions with individuals and groups who have experienced a traumatic event. One of the greatest impacts of trauma is that the person or group that experienced it did not have a choice. In that experience they did not have a say, they did not have control, their needs were not important. So, if we expand our understanding of the importance of asking instead of telling and extend that to look at language through the lens of trauma, it becomes even more clear how important and impactful this actually is. Because every time that we are able to present someone who’s experienced trauma with an environment in which they are able to make a choice and their human dignity is celebrated, we are part of the healing process that reconnects them to healthy relationship. What a great opportunity to change someone’s experience of connecting and communicating with others by changing one simple word!
I challenge you for the next week to be thoughtful about how you are communicating with and about those around you. Maybe take a moment each day or throughout the day to reflect on how it would feel to you if you were only told what to do and never asked. And if you’re reading this and having a lack of choice is your experience, I want to affirm to you that your voice is important, you have value, and that you deserve to choose.
Our words communicate more than just the meaning of the words themselves; they also communicate how we value the person to whom we are communicating.
Please be careful.