Tag Archives: Words

The Complications of Spoken Confidence

Sometime last year, I came across a speech from the 2015 Toastmasters World Champion, Mohammed Qahtani. If you have a few minutes, I really suggest you take the time to watch it. OK, let’s say you only have a couple of minutes: just watch the introduction.


While I’m not a fan of Qahtani’s parenting style (either option), I’m going to skip over that for now, as it’s not the main reason for writing this post. I’m also going to skip over the stereotypical portrayal of scientists, again, as it’s not the main reason for writing this post (but I will say that I’ve never meant a scientist who confirms that ‘stereotypical portrayal’). The main reason for writing this post is the first few minutes of the video. The startling anecdote that Qahtani shares about smoking and diabetes. Be honest — did you believe him when he said, “the amount of people dying from diabetes is three times as many dying from smoking?” Based on the audience’s response, I suspect that there are probably — at least — some of you who didn’t know this. To be clear, it’s not my aim to make you feel bad about this. If this isn’t a piece of data you’ve been exposed to at some point in your life, you probably have little reason to know. (Unfortunately, smoking is part of my family history, so I knew Qahtani was up to something when I heard him make that statement. Oh, and if you’re curious, WHO posits that smoking is the leading cause of death where 1 in 10 adults worldwide [!] die as a result of it, whereas diabetes is ‘only’ the 7th leading cause of death in the US.)

Circling back to the video… conviction. Did you notice the conviction with which Qahtani parroted the statistics about diabetes and smoking? He said it so assuredly that it almost makes you want to believe him (or at a minimum, question whether what you thought you knew about those two pieces of statistics was true or not). When I saw him do this, it reminded me of the hundreds of articles you see published each year that advise people on how to sell themselves or their company. The infamous elevator pitch.

Invariably, when you read articles (or books!) about how to give a good elevator pitch, you’re going to find that it’s very common that one of the most important things you can do in that elevator pitch is to be confident (or passionate or some other synonym that fits nicely into the author’s acronym). Don’t get me wrong, confidence is certainly important when it comes to making your elevator pitch, but in seeing Qahtani express himself with an air of confidence, it made me wonder about the human fallibility, with regard to elevator pitches.

Sure, I suspect that for people who’s job it is to listen to elevator pitches on a constant basis will tell you that they have a finely tuned BS-detector, but what about the rest of us who haven’t spent 10,000 hours listening to elevator pitches? I bet you’re thinking that you don’t have to worry about that when it comes to your field because you’re an expert. OK. Let’s accept for a moment that you are — what about all the other fields that you haven’t achieved “expert” status in — what do you do there? Well, I suppose you/we could perfect y/our BS-detector, but I suppose there’s still the possibility that you might make a type I/II error (depending upon your perspective). That is, there’s still the possibility that you might miss the BS for what it is and it’s also possible that you might incorrectly assess something as BS when it’s actually gold!

On that note, I want to leave you with the powerful words of Dr. Maya Angelou, on words:

Women and Words: Women Who Read Objectifying Words More Likely to Seek Cosmetic Surgery

I’ve tried to write about this article on a few occasions and had to stop because I simply felt terrible with the implications of the research. In short, as the headline of this post suggests, when women read words that are objectifying, they’re more likely to seek cosmetic surgery. I’ve written about the importance of words and how they can have an effect on us in the past, but this is one of the first times I’ve written about it with such awful implications. Here’s a bit more from the researchers:

Our results provide the first evidence that intentions to pursue cosmetic surgery stem (in part) from being in a state of self-objectification— a state where women are focused on how their bodies look in the eyes of others as opposed to what their bodies can do. Compared to the non-self-objectifying conditions, women primed to self-objectify reported more body shame and a greater intent to pursue cosmetic surgery.

You might consider this finding to be intuitive, but it’s really important when research like this is published and we can say with more conviction that the words we use can have a catastrophic effect on some people. In particular, impressionable young women. I should clarify that I don’t mean for that to come across as paternalistic. The study focused on women (and didn’t include look at whether this effect holds in men, too).

While the headline from the article is mostly “Bad News Bears,” there’s still a ray of hope to be found [Emphasis Added]:

In addition, we found that body shame was significantly lower among women primed with the non-self-objectifying physicality words compared to the neutral words. This finding suggests that exposure to text that emphasizes body functionality and competence without a focus on observable physical attributes may be protective against selfobjectification and body shame.

As the researchers suggested, this should be subjected to further investigation. Regardless, these findings are very important for all of us who write for consumption in any form, but probably more so for folks who write for consumption by young women. Before I end this post, I wanted to include a few more passages from the article that I think are important, with some commentary [Emphasis Added]:

Our research has a number of implications for practitioners. First, knowledge of this link between self-objectification (stemming from a sexually objectifying environment) and intentions to have cosmetic surgery should be useful to practitioners who work with girls and women. In particular, it is necessary to move beyond the understanding that sexual objectification makes women feel bad per se to identify the potentially harmful actions against themselves that women might take in response to such encounters.

For those who are in any kind of counselling profession or role, this seems very important. Understanding the actions that a client/patient may take as a result of their state can be key to offering the right kind of counsel.

Second, community members who wish to advocate for girls and women—including activists, educators, counselors, and policymakers—must raise awareness of the harms of self-objectification more consistently, including the pressure to undergo risky elective surgery.

Raise awareness. That’s why, despite my difficulty in trying to complete this post, I persevered. Persevere is probably too strong of a word, but I felt it important to write this, so that when you read this, you may consider changing your behaviour and hopefully, educate those around you in the hopes that they may change their behaviour, too.

Third, more emphasis should be placed on expanding the self and identity of girls and women to provide other domains in which they can glean social rewards and secure esteem beyond a sexualized appearance.

Please, please, please, rent/buy Miss Representation and tell your friends about it. It’s one of the most succinct (and recent) documentaries exploring the issues with how women are portrayed in the media.

Fourth, it is necessary to provide girls and women with specific actions that can be taken in the face of sexual objectification that do not require modification of one’s body in order to arm them with a greater sense of control over these largely uncontrolled and uncontrollable situations.

This goes back to that first point about those in the helping professions — it’s so important that one is able to offer a different avenue of action for one who is seeking out something like cosmetic surgery as a result of self-objectification.

Fifth, to the extent that self-objectification might be a risk factor for repeated surgery and low satisfaction with surgical outcomes, engagement with cosmetic surgery professionals to at least think about the implications of these patterns is worthwhile.

Almost as a “last resort” kind of thing, as the researchers suggested, it would be important for folk who work in cosmetic surgery offices to have knowledge of this issue of self-objectification (through the words they’ve read). While it may not be “good for business,” I would hope that for folks who work in this industry, counselling their potential clients on research like this would come first. I should clarify that I don’t mean to imply that anyone working in the cosmetic surgery industry is simply in it for the money, it’s as noble as any other medical field (consider those who work in plastic surgery, which is the umbrella that cosmetic surgery falls under, that seek to help burn victims).

Finally, it is critical that practitioners take up the challenge of changing the system of sexual objectification that perpetuates self-objectification and the concomitant consequences in the first place (Calogero & Tylka, in press). In light of the potential risks of undergoing any surgery and anesthesia, the pursuit of elective cosmetic surgery may represent another harmful micro-level consequence of selfobjectification for women, which will require our attention on many fronts.

ResearchBlogging.orgCalogero, R., Pina, A., & Sutton, R. (2013). Cutting Words: Priming Self-Objectification Increases Women’s Intention to Pursue Cosmetic Surgery Psychology of Women Quarterly, 38 (2), 197-207 DOI: 10.1177/0361684313506881

Chapter 4 – Corporate-Owned Life Insurance and Placebos: What Money Can[‘t] Buy, Part 4

It’s been more than a month since I last completed a post in this series. To refresh your memory: we were looking at the chapters in Michael Sandel‘s book, What Money Can’t Buy. In the first chapter, we looked at things like when it’s okay to jump the line. In the second chapter, we looked at the difference between fines and fees. In the third chapter, we looked at fairness and inequality. In today’s post, the fourth chapter, we’ll look at the markets in life and death.

As with previous chapters, I’ve learned something that I didn’t even know existed. In this chapter, I learned about something called “janitors insurance.” This is another way of saying corporate-owned life insurance. Meaning, a company takes out a life insurance policy on its workers. Now, you may have already assumed (or thought) that companies might take out a life insurance policy on the CEO, as the time and energy that would need to go into finding a new CEO should the current one die suddenly, but would you have considered that some companies take out life insurance policies on workers much lower on the organizational chart?

I’m a little uneasy with this idea and I’m not sure which side I’d come down on if forced to choose. It’s certainly a delicate subject.

This chapter also talked about people being able to sell their life insurance policies. Let’s say a man (or woman) is the breadwinner in the family and takes out life insurance when he’s (or she’s) in his (or her) early 30s. The life insurance is really *only* important to the family through the breadwinner’s working years. So, when the person turns 65 (or when they retire), they feel that they no longer need that insurance — and sell it. Do you think that’s ethical? Is it unethical to prevent someone from selling it?

Again, I’m really not sure what’s right in this situation. For some reason, it feels a little more ethical that the people are willingly selling the life insurance that they had previously bought rather than if someone took out life insurance without their knowledge. Though, I’m aware that this may just be the contrast effect at play.

There were other variations on this theme throughout the chapter, but the one thing that I kept thinking about in response to this idea is the variations on the placebo effect that I’ve written about before. We know how powerful our own thoughts can be for ourselves (example) and how powerful our thoughts can be for others (example) — don’t you think that someone buying life insurance (i.e. buying stock in our eventual death) is a bit like sending negative thoughts to a person? Maybe that’s a little extreme.

Your Beliefs Matter for Others, Too

In reflecting on yesterday’s post, I remembered another anecdote that you may find quite powerful. This comes from a story that a friend of mine who taught high school (not sure if she still does). And the more that I think about yesterday’s post and the post I’m about to write now, yesterday’s matches really well with the the first post I wrote about words being important and today’s matches really well with the second post I wrote about words being important to others.

The story begins with the teacher, let’s call her Laura to make this easier, asking the class to stand in a circle. After the class is standing in the circle, she asks for one volunteer to step into the center of the circle with her. Someone enters the center of the circle — let’s call him John. Now, before I go on, I should say that John was one of the taller people in the class (taller than Laura). These were high school students and some of them had surpassed Laura’s height, which is natural because Laura wasn’t very tall. Alright, so Laura pushes down on John’s arm and nothing happens — obviously. He’s much stronger than her.

Then, Laura asks John to go out into the hallway for a few minutes. After the door is closed, Laura then tells the class what she’s about to do. She also explains that she wants everyone to send/think negative thoughts to John. Thoughts like, “I hate you,” and “You suck,” and lots of other negative things that they can probably imagine because they’re in high school. They’re not to say any of these out loud, though. Once she’s certain everyone gets it, she goes out into the hall to get John.

After John’s back in the circle, she explains to everyone (and John, this time) that she’s going to have John extend his right arm out in front of him. Next, she’s going to ask him to hold it steady (i.e. resist) as she begins to push down on it. What John doesn’t know is that when his arm is extended, the rest of the class will be sending/thinking negative thoughts.

John extends his right arm. The class starts sending negative thoughts. Laura pushes down on John’s arm… it falls like limp spaghetti. The look on John’s face, Laura tells me, is remarkable. He’s astounded that Laura can simply push his arm down with ease. He asks her to do it again — and he tries harder to hold his arm up. The same thing happens.

She thanks John and asks him to go out into the hallway one more time. When he gets there, she then tells the class that she wants everyone to do the opposite this time. She’s going to have John repeat the process, but she wants the class to send/think positive thoughts of John. Things like, “I love you,” and “You’re awesome.”

When John comes back into the circle this time, he’s expecting that Laura will, again, be able to easily push down on his arm. However, when she pushes down — nothing happens. So, Laura then tries using both of her hands to push down. Nothing. John’s arm wouldn’t budge. Again, Laura tells me, John’s reaction is priceless. She thanks John and explains to the class what’s just happened, who by the way, are also pretty shocked to see John’s arm collapse for negative thoughts and hold steady for positive thoughts.


The thoughts we think are powerful. This used to be something that was “fringe,” and relegated to certain aisles in the bookstores. When you see publications like Scientific American reviewing studies that confirm things like this, you know that it’s striking a mainstream cord.

If you’re looking for more information about topics like this, I suggest looking for academic studies on the Placebo Effect. It’s quite amazing the kinds of effects that can occur that are attributable simply to the person believing that they’re going to be better.

Belief Matters More Than You Think

I came across an article in Scientific American last week that reminded me of a story of mine that I haven’t yet told. When I was a PhD candidate at Sofia University, one of the classes that we were required to take was aikido. I really enjoyed learning this martial art having had past experiences with taekwondo and karate — specifically, Gōjū-ryū. (In fact, I did some googling and even found the dojo where I spent a great deal of my youth!)

Anyway, while at Sofia University and learning  aikido, I remember one of the classes quite vividly. In this class, we were learning about the five elements, as they related to aikido. In particular, we were learning about earth. The Sensei (teacher) asked one of the smallest women in the class to come to the front and then he asked me to come to the front, too. He asked her to stand normally and then asked me to lift her off the ground from under her arms. I did it easily. Next, he asked her to imagine that she was the earth element — planting roots deep into the ground. After a few dozen seconds, he then asked me to try lifting her again (in the same way I lifted her before) — nothing. I bent my knees a bit more and put some more force behind my lift — nothing.

I was amazed.

It was quite clear from the first half of this exercise that I could lift her off of the ground, but when she was imagining that she was the earth element, I was — so it seems — helpless. I’ve written before about the importance that our words/thoughts can have on ourselves (and on each other!), but this is a tangible example of how someone’s beliefs are actually effecting reality in a very tangible way. Is there something you’re believing about yourself that may be limiting your ability to lift yourself off of the ground?


I realize that my story is anecdotal, so I thought I’d also include one of the many examples from the Scientific American article:

Psychologists Ulrich Weger and Stephen Loughnan recently asked two groups of people to answer questions. People in one group were told that before each question, the answer would be briefly flashed on their screens — too quickly to consciously perceive, but slow enough for their unconscious to take it in. The other group was told that the flashes simply signaled the next question. In fact, for both groups, a random string of letters, not the answers, was flashed. But, remarkably, the people who thought the answers were flashed did better on the test. Expecting to know the answers made people more likely to get the answers right.


Editor’s Note: As an aside, I’m in the process of moving from Washington, DC, to Ottawa, Canada (the Glebe!), so my posts may become a bit sparser over the next few weeks. I’ll still do my best, but if you don’t see anything for a couple of days, it’s probably because I’m busy with planning/arranging the move.

Let’s Talk About “Gays and Lesbians”: Language Matters!

On my way back from an airport drop-off this morning, I was listening to NPR. There was a news report that the Boy Scouts of America would be deciding today whether they would allow ‘gays’ to be in the Boy Scouts of America. They then spoke about the Governor of Texas and former Republican Presidential (!) candidate Rick Perry who thinks that the Boy Scouts most certainly should not change the rules. NPR then played a clip of President Obama and his position on allowing ‘gays and lesbians‘ to serve openly in the military.

All of this is starting to get really irritating.

Right now, at this moment, (unless you know me or can infer from the title of this post), you probably think I’m going to make a plea for the status quo. Well, that’s absolutely false.

Instead, I’m going to make a plea for the reporters, pundits, politicians, talking heads, and just about anybody else that we not refer to each other by a single characteristic. Gays. Lesbians. When was the last time you turned to your friend and referred to the “straight people?”

This reminds me of my days as a doctoral student in a clinical psychology PhD program. During one of our classes, I remember one of the members of my cohort make an impassioned plea that we stop referring to people by their personality disorder. Schizophrenics. Borderlines.

I can completely understand why people do it. I’ve done it. And I’m sure I’ll do it in the future (though, not intentionally, of course). It’s easier to refer to a group by saying gays and lesbians than it is people who are gay or people who have a sexual orientation different from me (as it’s usually non-gay people who are marginalizing folks who are gay and lesbian). Not only is it “easier,” but it’s the way that everyone else does it. If there were ever a reason that needed to be almost completely banned from being a reason for doing something, that would be it.

Look, I understand that most people say it like that or that it’s easier to say it that way, but do you understand what you’re doing when you refer to the “gays and lesbians” in that way? It’s dehumanizing!


Well, by dissociating any other human characteristic in your description, it’s easier to marginalize and think of people who are gay/lesbian as different. It’s also easier to be more crass, harsh, and inhumane. In particular, if you think you’re talking about someone who’s not human, this’ll make it easier to, naturally, not treat these people as human.

Making this change won’t be easy. Speaking in this way is so pervasiveIt’s in the immigration debate in the way we refer to people by their ethnicity. Though, even just invoking ‘immigrant’ for some folks makes it easier to be inhumane. Short tangent: I always find the immigration debate altogether strange in the US. A great majority of the people who live in the US today are descended from immigrants. Do they not remember? Do they not care? Don’t they realize that the people trying to immigrate to the US share so many characteristics with their ancestors who did the same many moons ago? I digress.

Marginalizing people by referring to one characteristic is pervasive. I should also say that categorizing people, at times, can be useful. “All the boys line up on this side of the classroom, all the girls on that side.” And that makes perfect sense. There’s utility in a lot of things (maybe not everything), but when it’s taken to the extreme, it can do harm. Categorizing, taken to its extreme, can look like marginalization and by extension, inhumanity.

It’s time we start recognizing that the way we speak has profound effects on the people around us. I’ve written before about the importance of the words that we choose and how they can have an effect on those around us, and I’d say that this discussion is an extension of that. We need to be mindful of the way we talk about people — because — they — are — people. It may seem trivial, but it’s important to remember. We’re talking about people.

So — my call to action — notice what you’re saying and how you’re saying it. Do you say people who are gay/lesbian or do you say gays/lesbians? The first step in making this kind of a change is noticing that you’re doing it.

There Is No Fiscal Cliff: A Lesson in Metaphor

If you live in Washington, DC, you most certainly hear and read about the “fiscal cliff” on a daily basis — especially as the “impending doom” inches closer. If you don’t live in DC, you’ve probably still heard/read about the fiscal cliff because there are national implications. I wonder — did you stop to think about the “fiscal cliff?” That is, does the metaphor accurately represent what it is that we’re talking about?

From Matt Yglesias:

A salient fact about non-metaphorical cliffs is that falling over them is generally irreversible. If the cliff is high enough that falling off of it would kill you, then if you fall off you’re going to die and that’s the end of it. The “fiscal cliff” by contrast isn’t like that at all.

And from Steve Kornacki:

That’s not a good way to understand what we’re facing. The reality is that the “cliff” is really more of a slope. A gradual slope. It works like this:

If nothing happens between now and the end of the year, then on January 1, the Bush tax cuts will expire, the alternative minimum tax will reach further down the income ladder, and payroll tax rates will revert to 6.2 percent. (They’re 4.2 percent now — that was part of the big Obama tax cut that no one ever seemed to notice or give him credit for.)

But — and this is the critical point — this won’t all happen at once.

It’s not like John and Jane Taxpayer will wake up on January 1 and be socked with a bill for $3,000. Only the payroll hike would go into effect right away.

It would be months before most taxpayers were actually hit with higher income tax rates or the AMT [Alternative Minimum Tax].

Ditto for the big, scary spending cuts you’re hearing about, which will be phased in over the year, and even into future years.

And why is this important?

Because it means there’s time after January 1 for Congress and the White House to reach a deal — lots of time.

I’ve written about the importance of words, but when it comes to instances like this, the words we use are even more important. The fact that so many of us are constantly using this metaphor to discuss the impending changes to America‘s fiscal policy makes the metaphor that much more entrenched. And by extension, that also makes those people who only hear about these changes in passing that much more frightened (by the metaphor).

So, when you hear dramatic metaphors, especially from politicians, be sure to look into the details to decide whether someone’s using hyperbole to scare the public.

Oh — and in case you’re interested, from the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities:

The greater danger is that misguided fears about the economy going over a “fiscal cliff” into another Great Recession will lead policymakers to believe they have to take some action, no matter how ill-conceived and damaging to long-term deficit reduction, before the end of the year, rather than craft a balanced plan that supports the economic recovery in the short term and promotes fiscal stabilization in the intermediate and longer run.