The use of words and symbols is the primary source of communication. From the time we are born, we are taught to verbally express our thoughts and feelings through language. The tone and choice of words used can differ given the context of the situation; however it remains the constant tool of expression.
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Cultural beliefs are transmitted by the use of words and language. Words alone are meaningless until they are applied within a designed context. For example, stories and proverbs are frequently used to provide moral lessons that reflect the values from within the society.
Each region carries its own unique style in which messages are communicated. Although the language might be different, the goal of using words and symbols to instill a common idea within the community remains the same regardless of placement on the globe (Bonvillain, 2008). The right combination of terms can manipulate our way of thinking and behaving.
The selection of positive or negative expressions can trigger certain thoughts and emotions from within the subconscious mind. The response from individual behavior will ultimately reflect the feeling behind the words that are being used depending on the tone. The response to a given set of words also varies depending on a person’s interpretation behind the meaning.
Certain expressions used carry different significance which can influence the reaction of the intended audience. In terms of the product and sales industry for example, marketing campaigns will incorporate the use of slogans and key words in order to capture the consumers’ attention. The expected result of such messages is to excite the purchasing power and to bring up sales (Three Rivers 1996).
The context behind a set of words can be interpreted differently depending on facial expression, tone of voice, body gestures and circumstances. The meaning can change dramatically from a compliment to an insult depending on the comprehension of the listener.
The English language for example, contains many words that carry different meanings depending on the context in which it is being used. Take the word smart when used as an adjective it means intelligent, however depending on the tone used by the speaker it can be interpreted very differently. For instance, a young teenage girl getting her first pair of glasses asks her family’s opinion on them.
They respond that the glasses make her look smart. Although the comment was meant to be delivered as a compliment, the young girl who is already in an awkward stage and is self-conscious about herself could take it in a negative way. She could assume that her family is telling her that she merely appears to be intelligent now that she has glasses, but in fact is not.
The word smart has become a derogatory term used in this context, by implying that all people who wear glasses are brainy, and those who do not are not knowledgeable. This is an example of a typical stereotype that has been adapted into the western culture.
These types of cliché’s that are found in TV shows and movies that are meant for entertainment have created social misconceptions, societal gaps and emotional misunderstandings. They have also de-sensitized society of morally wrong forms of expression, blurring the lines of what is a correct form of speech and what is not.
Politically correct form of speech has become a major debated topic over the past few decades. The uses of derogatory phrases and words have been deemed unacceptable and are not tolerated in the work place, school and in public affairs. The quest for a mutual inoffensive form of expression is not an easy task however. Misconceptions and misunderstandings always seem to create more controversy rather than solving the issue.
“To help define what is politically correct, the University of Missouri’s Multicultural Program developed the Dictionary of Cautionary Words and Phrases” (Spring, 1992).
Its primary objective is to help define stereotypical terms and to create an understanding amongst different cultures. Freedom of Speech activists have been the biggest critics of such dictionaries. They argue that not being able to use specific terms to describe certain events causes more confusion and creates ambiguity rather than creating understanding.
A journalist from Montreal wrote his opinion as “Politically correct language is not so much about politics as about illdefined sensitivity. It often involves replacing a short, clear, precise word with four of five fuzzy words” (Spring, 1992). Another issue arises when attempting to create a considerate form of speech is the words being used to replace other ones, can actually be construed as racists or sexist.
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A recent example noted was United States Senator Joseph Biden and his use of the word articulate in his description of the now President Barack Obama. This sparked controversy, especially amongst the African American community, stating that using articulate in this context is “the implication that most black people do not have the capacity to engage in articulate speech…” (Clemetson, 2007).
It was taken as a narrow-minded way of speaking and thinking. However under different circumstances the use of the word articulate is a compliment to a person’s ability to express themselves clearly and consistently.
It is apparent that creating a set of politically correct words that cater to the sensitivities of each individual is a near impossible task. In any given situation, the innocent message that is trying to be conveyed by the speaker, can be interpreted in a multitude of different ways by the listener. Words remain a powerful source in the exchange of information and ideas. They can also be used in ways of manipulation and assimilation.
A certain set of combinations can transform an entire way of thinking and behaving. Single words without any context remain insignificant until they are interpreted by the intended listener. The meaning behind the spoken language can vary depending on cultural belief or in the manner in which they are being transmitted.
The only way to truly gain overall understanding within society is to use language a communication tool rather than as a weapon. It is only through knowledge and understanding will we break down the misconceptions that divide us.
Bonvillain, Nancy. Language, Culture and Communication. USA: Prentice Hall, 2008 Print.
Clemetson, Lynette. “The Racial Politics of Speaking Well.” Feb. 4, 2007. Web.
Spring, Natasha. “Freedom of Speech vs. Politically correct language”. April,1992. Web.
Three Rivers, Amoja. “Cultural Etiquette. A Guide for the Well-Intentioned”. Communities Magazine. Spr. 1996. Web.