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The power of words

Thinking about roles

We may often get a breakthrough in thinking by changing the words we use. Linguists and psychologists have long debated how much language shapes how we think, but there’s little debate that it does. A powerful way to break down barriers to new thinking is to reconsider what words we use.I’ve learned a lot about this from a futurist colleague of mine, Mimi Stokes Katzenbach, who is also an actor and playwright. Mimi has taught my colleagues and me new things about how the work we do in exploring the future is about people, roles, and stories at least as much as it’s about data, trendlines, and technologies.

Mimi and I had a conversation this week about roles. In a World Futures Society session on the social future, I had supposed that some people might, because of strong and rising concern for environment, recast themselves from “consumer” to “sustainer”. Mimi seized on that word, sustainer, as a great example of how we can break through to new thinking by changing the words we use.

“Sustainer” is a role word. Having it can move our thinking off of the broad, theoretical noun: “sustainability,” to a role or function we can define and play. If you say “I am a sustainer, not a consumer” you redefine your role, and can have a much clearer idea what you need to do.

We live in roles we play; parent, executive, student, friend, cyclist, artist, and so on. Otherwise, we would not know what we are all about. By creating a “role” word for a situation, we can open up our thinking about what we will or should do.

Mimi’s other observation is the power of a verb over a noun. By transforming a noun into a verb, you move to action. So instead of saying that sustainablity is important to us, we might say that we are going to “lower our carbon footprint” which implies and can define specific action.

The lesson here is to move our thinking from the abstract to the specific and to put people into the change we want to understand and make happen. That’s a critical part of the bigger issue we face in foresight, which is to make the future clear, relevant, and real to people. There are no great changes in the world, good or bad, without people driving them.

Image: gemsling, via Flickr, cc license

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