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There is a school of linguistic anthropology that holds that culture is a meditative means by which man interacts with his environment.

Now, if you’re like me, you may have no idea what just happened the first time you read that. Well, actually, that’s not true, I read it the first time and I was like “THIS MAKES PERFECT SENSE,” but I’m weird and slightly creepy and don’t sleep when normal people do.

What does this idea mean, really?

Well, it means just this:

Culture is a tool.

No, I don’t mean like sleeveless-shirt backwards-baseball-cap, I mean like hammer or chisel.  We use tools to get things done.  We use a hammer to get nails into a wall.

The example given in my ANTH textbook was (approximately) similar to this:

When you want someone to leave the room, you can physically make them leave the room.  This is an unmediated action. You are pitting yourself directly against the world.

ALTERNATIVELY, you can use a tool.  A hammer, a pumpkin pie, an AK-47…or words.

In this school of thought, words are a way in which we sculpt reality.  With a series of words, we can cause others to do our bidding…with certain restrictions.

I like this view because it’s cool.

Language is a powerful thing. We know this already.  Or at least you know this if you’ve followed my blog for more than a month, because I say this approximately every other post.

Words have immense power.  They structure and define, and hint at the underlying assumptions of our civilizations.

Let’s look at discourse.

Discourse is an interesting word.  It’s a word for argument, but it’s not commonly used.

Why not? Well, how do we conceive of an argument?


“In logic and philosophy, an argument is an attempt to persuade someone of something,” (Wikipedia)

“An oral disagreement; verbal opposition; contention; altercation: a violent argument.” (

“a : a reason given in proof or rebuttal b : discourse intended to persuade. 3. a : the act or process of arguing.” (

So an argument is something we try to do to someone.  And they resist.  They retort, rebut, riposte, respond to, or shoot down our arguments.  They hit us in our weak points, and we abandon indefensible positions.  Finally, there is a winner, the other side’s arguments finally crushed, unless they refuse to surrender and flee the field.

This sounds like war.

Why do we not use discourse more often?

Because when we argue, more often than not we don’t have much of a discourse, which is a two-way discussion.  Usually, in modern Western society, when we debate or argue, we do so with one intention: to win.

This is not how it is everywhere.

In the Socratic dialogues we see Socrates arguing (discoursing) with people not to win, but to explore different ideas, playing around with points of view like a nerd building Minecraft castles.  In the Essaís we see Montaigne deconstruct both sides of an argument and put them back together to get a look at the person writing about them.   In Tao, yin and yang exist in a state of back-and-forth, eternally balanced, light never canceling out dark.

There are psychotherapists who believe that their patients should not be diagnosed in certain cases, for fear that it will come to harm their self-image—indeed, it is said that there are certain psychopathologies who should not be apprised of their symptoms, for once they are aware of it they will become obsessed with cataloguing each instance of its existence in an endless (and ultimately self-destructive) quest for self-perfection.


Because this is how we define ourselves. We come to grips with our world through the lens of language.  Take a moment of silence.  Listen to the chatter in your head.  What language is it in? Because it’s in a language, isn’t it, that clockwork frontal-lobe buzzing that only really goes away during sleep or exercise or meditation or *certain other activities*?   That ‘monkey mind,’ as it’s sometimes called, the ever-curious, ever-running internal dialogue?

Is it in English? Is it in English now, now that you’ve been reading my words? Was it in another language before? Does it switch?

Anyway, back to language.

How do we affect other people with language?

To start with, we use language to construct ourselves.

From the very first instant of contact, we relate to other people within a framework.  Potential partner/uninterested.  Stranger/friend.  Student/teacher. N00b/133t. Employee/customer.

Before we even open our mouth to speak, we have already calculated, catalogued, and calibrated to the conversation, without really needing to think about it.  We speak in a higher pitch, perform a quick code switch (change language/dialect), formalize our speech, choose our words differently.

Before we even speak, we are in turn analyzed and judged, and the other calculates how to respond—again without conscious input.  Every word we speak from that very first then affects their response, like the AI in Dragon Age: Origins, and with our words and actions we build the world’s perception of ourselves.  People have different views of us depending on our actions in their presence—and so we have many different faces, intentionally or not.  They may all correspond—may all be incredibly similar or even virtually identical—but they are still subtly different.

This is an effect apparent in the first few weeks of freshman year in college.  Many people reinvent themselves, alter their speech patterns, and present a new face to the world—so much so that quite interesting conversations can arise if college friends ever meet high school friends, to say nothing of parents!  These freshpeople strive to create a better social image, to influence others with their words to gain standing, to gain acceptance, to gain booze, and to gain *other things*.

Every word we say and every thing we do builds this image.  And if we want to keep our positive image and abolish our negative ones, we put constraints on our own actions, do things only in line with the character people perceive us to be.

Now, this all sounds very manipulative, as though we were all secretly plotting and scheming against one another.

But it’s not an act of manipulation.  Rather, it’s a dance—a dance we all perform with incredible grace, with the goal of protecting our friends and harming our enemies.  A dance performed not only with the outside world but with ourselves—through language we insulate ourselves, we justify our actions and protect ourselves from our own harsher judgments.  Through language we build ourselves up, build our worldview around us like a fortress.

And through language we can be torn apart.  The right words can disintegrate our world more effectively than an atomic bomb, for while a physical attack can damage the body, words can shift and alter the very nature of your personality, how you see the world, how you act.

By the way.  We make a sharp differentiation between body and mind in our language, in our culture.  But if you look at ancient Greek texts, you can find a much more holistic worldview, ideas that point to the mind as part and parcel of the body, a single unified whole working in harmony.

So what is the power of words?


So much so that a strategy often used in therapy is what could be described as a simple code switch—changing the way you speak and think.

Try it.

Keep an eye on your thoughts.  Listen to what runs through your head.  Is it optimistic? Pessimistic? Would you like it to be different?

Then, when life hurls you a curveball, don’t panic.  Don’t flip a table.  Well, actually, do, because it’s great fun, but don’t do it immediately.

Instead, structure your words.  Say to yourself, “I’ve got this.”  Take a deep breath.  Think positively.  Think about all the things you can control, all the things you can change in your life.  It’s quite a lot, isn’t it? More than you might think, perhaps.

Language is powerful.

If you know how to use it, both within yourself and in the outside world, it can help you overcome anything.  It can help you make yourself into the person you want to be.

And it can make your Monday just a bit better.

So as you read this blog post, take a moment.  Think about how you think.  Listen to what you say.  How does your idiolect—your personal language—affect who you are? How does it reflect who you are?

Most importantly…




  1. This is very cool. The psychology of “Self-Talk” works to adjust the way people “talk” to themselves in order to bring about change. I think that it is a viable work around.

    • This is something that’s always struck me as cool and is partially the reason I may end up considering counselling as a thing that I do.

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