Out of sight, out of mind. A pithy aphorism as old as Shakespeare. There is a reason it has stuck around, and it is not because it’s untruthful. This adage applies generally to physical things. Misplace your favourite pen at home and after a few days you will likely forget it. Let us apply this concept to the language and the words we use: verbally in conversation with others and in our own internal dialogue.
The internal dialogue we have with ourselves runs continuously for every waking minute. That means that the words and language we choose to use are never out of sight. They are always there.
In this article, I answered the question of we all talk to the most: ourselves. It would then follow that the words we use not only when in conversation with others but with ourselves matter. Take the example of being bumped into when you are outside. You could either say:
Hey! What the hell. Watch where you are going!
What a poor soul, they must be in a real hurry. Hope they make it to wherever they are going.
It doesn’t matter whether you say it aloud, under your breath, or just have it play in your head to an audience of one. Whichever your reaction, in the moment, it is of no consequence. But imagine repeating the same reaction across a lifetime. Assuming you commute everyday, you could conceivably be bumped into once a week, especially during rush hour. 52 weeks in a year and 40 years of working will net you an approximate total of 2080 bumps.
If you are unforgiving and cynical the first time you get bumped, you will likely react in the same manner the second, third, and 100th time. Before you know it you this seemingly inconsequential opens you to the idea of cynicism. Any other minor grievance by others, and you might react in the same manner. These small reactions can build up over a lifetime.
Conversely, being forgiving and trying to be empathetic will encourage that attitude to grow within you. It might start with people accidentally bumping into you, but as this attitude inhabits your consciousness it can spill over into other circumstances.
This is not to say if you are understanding when bumped, you will be the most empathetic person in the world or vice versa. We are all capable of empathy and cynicism. If we want to be more empathetic, then we can start by using more empathetic language to describe our interactions with the world. In any case, given that we are the people that we talk the most too, it makes sense to try be more intentional with the words and language we use.
In his book, Atomic Habits, James Clear proposes that the first step towards habit formation is to notice it. For example, if you have aspirations to learn the Piano, then store it centrally in your home. We tend to overestimate our autonomy when it comes to deciding what to do. Clear referenced a study that looked at whether the positioning of water bottles and various types of soda in a cafeteria setting affected peoples decision to buy water or soft drinks.
The cafeteria was in a box layout with four sides. On each side there was a drinks stand with either soft drinks or water. The north and south sides had soft drink stands while the west and east sides had water stands. The researchers initially did not change the layout of the cafeteria. They came in and recorded the customers preference for water and soft drinks. After, they decided to re-arrange the configuration of the drink stands such that on all four sides, you had both water and soft drinks displayed together. The results from this new configuration showed significantly higher sales of water, and fewer of soft drinks. When interviewing the water-buyers pre and post-intervention, their answers remained the same.
The general sentiment is that they bought the water because they “felt” like it. What the data suggests that there is something behind placing things in areas where they are likely to be seen as a means to nudge us towards better behaviour.
Applying this practically, the next time you experience a minor grievance you may react negatively. But the important thing is to try to be forgiving and understanding. It doesn’t matter if you believe it or not, the more you attempt to be understanding, the more you will believe you are. You need to allow time and space for these positive attitudes to become familiar while keeping the negative ones out of sight and out of mind.