By Gina Simmons, Ph.D.
The 2009 film Pontypool portrays zombie-like people who’ve become infected by language. In the film, humans parrot the same words and phrases, go on a killing spree and torment a talk-radio host. The filmmakers create a successful horror movie while getting the audience to ponder how the words we hear can infect us, shaping our thoughts and behavior.
In the musical Wicked the character of the Wizard sings, “A man’s called a traitor, or liberator. A rich man’s a thief or philanthropist. Is one a crusader or ruthless invader? It’s all in which label is able to persist.” The words we use influence others and shape the way we think and feel.
Advertisers know the power of a great slogan to generate revenue. “Just Do It,” (Nike), and “I’m lovin’ it” (McDonalds) motivate us to choose the product with the most connecting and memorable hook. Songwriters learn that every hit song must have a hook, or lyric you can’t get out of your head. (As any survivor of Disneyland’s “It’s a Small World” ride knows).
The military uses euphemisms to reduce emotions–people killed in combat are called “casualties.” Talk radio show hosts amplify language to arouse and intensify emotions. Who can forget Michael Savage dismissing Nobel peace prize winner Jimmy Carter as a “war criminal” or Rush Limbaugh spewing, “America held hostage” during the Clinton administration. Limbaugh listeners refer to themselves, zombie-like, as “ditto heads.” The words we use can ramp up or dial down our emotions priming us to think or feel in a particular direction. Psychologists call these cognitive distortions. We magnify or minimize depending on the words used to describe an event.
Professor Lera Boroditsky of Stanford University studies language and how it shapes the way we think. She found that English speakers might use the same phrase to describe an event, “Sara broke the vase,” whether Sara broke it on purpose or accidentally.Spanish speakers distinguish between an accident and a purposeful action. If Sara accidentally broke the vase, a Spanish speaker might say, “The vase broke.” English speakers seem more prone to affix blame largely due to the structure of our language.
When angry our language can flood with negative labels.”She’s an idiot, he’s a jerk,” we say when someone frustrates or offends. People with problem anger weaponize their language with words aimed to hurt. I’ve worked with many abused children who told me, “the words hurt more than the beatings.” Like the zombies in Pontypool, our anger keeps us ruminating about offenses with the same words “I hate this,” “she’s pathetic,” “he’s a monster.” To dezombify your language try the following:
- Challenge your assumptions. Have you magnified, minimized, or flooded your language with negative labels?
- Ask yourself, “Is there some truth to my opponent’s point?” “Could I be missing something?”
- Try restating your problem in friendly words. “You kids are great on those skateboards. Please try to stay off the garden.”
- Talk your problem out with a neutral party, like a teacher, counselor, or pastor.
Sometimes the best zombie cure is just knowing that when we speak, or when we listen, we’re in a relationship shaped by the words employed. Choose them wisely fellow zombies.