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The words we use and how we use them matters

Human beings are rather frail creatures. We don’t have teeth like a lion and we can’t outrun a cheetah. We rely on our societies to give us an edge for survival. It is programmed into us to seek acceptance in the group and to both rely on and support those around us. There are some outliers such as selfish people who seek to amass wealth and power at the expense of others. There is also the myth of the rouged individual making it alone against the elements such as the mountain man who is completely self-reliant and lives in the woods alone with no need of human contact or support other than a rifle and a knife. Yet, who made that riffle and knife? Who raised and suckled that mountain man as an infant? We are all depend on others and though there are outliers it is human nature to form social bonds. Without them, we face extinction as a species. These bonds are cemented with social glue.

That glue has to be constantly reinforced. One of the ways this is done is in daily social interaction that carry messages that may not be obvious. When two people pass each other and one says, “hello” and the other replies “hello”, they are communicating more than the words. In this seemingly unimportant action, the first person is really saying, “I acknowledge you as a human being and a part of my group. I recognize your worth.” The second person is saying, “I also acknowledge you as a human being and a part of my group. I recognize your worth as well.”

The two people could be fiends or complete strangers. They may have dinner that evening or never see each other again. None of that matters. A bond has been established that will be repeated throughout the day with others to hold the society together.

It is common for people who are provided with a service, such as patrons in a restaurant, to say “Thank you” to the server. This actually says, “I acknowledge you as a human being. As such, you are important to me and I appreciate what you have provided.” This message strengthens the social glue and forms a bond between server and served.

A Roman citizen two-thousand years ago who owned slaves would not say thank you. The bond between slave and owner is not one of group. Rather, it is one of threats and fear of punishment. The owner uses the slave not as a human being but as an object with no more thought than would be given to pot or pan.

When a person being served says Thank you”, the standard response by the server has been “Your welcome” or "It is my pleasure." This actually says, “I acknowledge you as a human being and a member of my group. I provided the service because you are important to me.” This exchange of “Thank you” and “Your welcome” completes a circle of relationship that affirms the bond and builds social glue.

The words spoken, however, must be sincere to form social glue. An insincere "Thank you" or "Your welcome" erodes that glue.

Within the last few decades, another response has become popular when someone says “Thank you” after being provided a service. You can now hear the words, “No problem” spoken. This actually says, “You have no worth in my eyes, I only did this because it wasn’t too much of an inconvenience for me. If it had been, I wouldn’t have done it.” Not only does this fail to complete the circle to form social glue, it actually erodes the glue and drives people apart.

The words we choose to use are important, yet communication is more than words. 80% of communication is non-verbal. The tone of voice and body language can convey much about what a person means. Consider a response from someone who has been asked to make a report at work.

One person might response in a flat tone that simply says that the report will be done. Another might say these words with drawn out sarcasm reflecting anger, possibly from past resentments and hurts. Still another might reply in an excited voice showing enthusiasm and thanks for an opportunity. Only the first and third responses build social glue. The second erodes the relationship and damages the group as a whole.

Body language also colours a response. Consider the same three words delivered with 1) a neutral expression of acknowledgement, 2) a face crunched up in anger or 3) a wide eyed expression of excitement. Again, the subtext behind the words can say more than those words themselves.

An important point in these exchanges is the sense of group and how far it extends. In a large city, people will rarely say hello to someone they don’t recognize. Those who do can be looked on with suspicion as if they are trying to get something. The concept of group can become narrowed to include co-workers, friends and even be confined to family alone. Everyone else they meet on the street is seen with the same importance as a lamp post. In Rural communities the concept of group will often become larger, taking in an entire village, town or region.

During the Covid-19 Pandemic, people in Port Hawkesbury, Nova Scotia put together a package of gifts for complete strangers; sailors on a ship tied up off shore after a case of Covid-19 was detected in the crew. The ship had water and food, so the people in Port Hawkesbury sent out fresh donuts, local honey, caps, scarves and other items to cheer the crew up. The captain sent his heart filled thanks and said it was the kindest thing he had ever experienced in all his years at sea.

Yet, our sense of group sometimes does not include those who are marginalized. Does a homeless person living on the streets deserve the social glue of “hello” or the consideration given to a street lamp? How much power to overcome our common problems of diseases, poverty, hunger and safety is lost because those who are members of minorities are denied equal consideration, respect and opportunity. Micro groups have their own internal social glues that hold their segregated communities together, yet where they rub against the majority communities there can be tension and friction.

Think of how powerful a world we could live in if everyone was bound by a common social glue, not to homogenize communities in an attempt to assimilate everyone and destroy cultures, but to draw us together with the recognition of our common humanity in times of need and triumph in order to build stronger ties while recognizing the power of diverse cultures to find solutions and enrich each person’s life. So much more could be accomplished if animosity and fear for those who are different vanished. Extending our sense of group and creating social glue between everyone will inspire more minds to tackle the problems we face and bind us together as humans. The words we chose to use and the way we use them can create or destroy that social glue.

Until he retired from the computer field to pursue a writing career full time, David A. Wimsett was the owner of an IT consulting firm and for decades practiced as a Project Management Professional with a Masters Certificate in Project Management. He has seen firsthand how poor communication is the leading cause of project failure. Mr. Wimsett is the author of several novels and a blog that discuss communication and social issues.