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No, I don’t speak bro: work and the (missing) language of wellbeing

Language is the most potent tool we have to articulate and improve our wellbeing - so what do we do when it's already making us feel like crap?

We spent last week on the Juggle Blog focusing on wellbeing, and we’re doing this same this week. Give us your thoughts and feedback by commenting on the blog, on social media or via our Wednesday Poll and Friday Pub Quiz.

 

Metaphors, ho! This article is going to be stuffed to the gills with them, we’re afraid. If cliches put a bee in your bonnet we quite understand, but you’ll just have to suck it up for this one.

The language of the battlefield permeates modern culture. We don’t just deal with problems, or even tackle them, we declare war on them. Disagreements become skirmishes, we rally the troops and annihilate the competition.

Business-speak is a particular offender, crammed with martial language. When you fill a role you don’t search for the right person, you head-hunt. You rarely outperform your competitors, you destroy them, you kill them, you bury them.  

This over-reliance on fightin’ talk (apart from being really boring) has been shown to be damaging, negatively influencing employees and even blurring the line between right and wrong in some cases.

Not particularly surprising. Rudyard Kipling once described words as “the most powerful drug used by mankind.” Words influence how we think and therefore influence our reality – but they’re also one of the few shared tools we have to make sense of it all. What someone says is the principle data we use to determine what they think, how they feel and how they might react to us.

We use so many words in a day that it might seem that they are without consequence, or that as long as the general meaning is clear the specific words we use to get there don’t really matter. But if martial rhetoric can influence people to do things they otherwise might not – things that are objectively wrong – what kind of effect is the persistence of this language having on our wellbeing?   

 

You speak bro, yo?

Ah, the brogrammer, deeply unfashionable bane of the tech start-up. The word has been in use for literally years at this point, but it took the tech industry a long time to recognise the problem and move to do anything about it. Now bro-culture is firmly embedded in Silicon Valley and beyond, and like many weeds it’s proved remarkably resilient.

The effects of bro-culture? Double standards, ingrained sexism and lack of diversity, and a working environment that makes certain groups of people uncomfortable, minimises their contributions and renders them unlikely to stick around. None of which are good for business in the long term.  Uprooting it for good requires a shift in attitude and prioritisation (which thankfully seems to be happening) but it also requires a shift in language. Not paying attention to the way we speak is partly what created bro culture in the first place.

As Juggle knows very well, start-ups are meant to be disruptive. It’s kind of the point. But starting as an underdog, almost always in industries dominated by monolithic bigger dogs, can easily lead to a combative mindset (especially with martial speech so deeply ingrained in our discourse). And unless steps are taken to manage it, a certain type of language can become the default. It’s easy to be dismissive. Does it really matter if you smash your targets rather than reach or surpass them? But if you don’t pay attention, the language you use can begin to steer and shape your workplace culture in ways you didn’t envisage or want. One of the chief complaints about toxic culture in businesses is the language used; language that alienates, frustrates and excludes. What’s important to note is that the intent is never to make people feel this way. Many a brogrammer has been shocked to discover that their discourse is negatively affecting the wellbeing of their colleagues. I never meant to upset you, bro.  

It’s not only about which words we use – it’s also very much about the words we don’t feel comfortable using. Being able to articulate your thoughts has a huge effect on your mental wellbeing (if it didn’t, talking therapies and counseling wouldn’t exist). But if you can’t use the right words for fear of being labelled then what are you supposed to do? How can you tell your colleagues that you’re worried about something if you think even the word “worried” might influence how people think about you?

 

None of us are from Mars

There IS a difference between how men and women speak. There’s a difference between how every group speaks – if there weren’t, the other differences in the group would slide toward homogeneity. The issue is when one set of language quirks either become mainstream – as in the case of martial language – or are valued less highly than another (as traditionally “feminine” speech was for much of human history). This leads to situations where “outsiders” are left with an ugly choice, use their natural discourse and be undervalued because of it, or mimic a different way of speaking (while often being judged for it regardless). None of this is great for your wellbeing or sense of self.

The solution? It’s up to businesses to create positive culture by using language effectively and – crucially – neutrally. This starts with the hiring process, so it’s something that we think a lot about. At Juggle we use tools like Textio to screen the language we use for biases. Textio’s augmented language is more inclusive, creates fewer barriers and attracts more diverse candidates. It’s more effective by any metric you care to use. Once you’ve figured that out, why would you ever go back to the old, less effective way?

This is our main point. So much of workplace discourse is needlessly aggressive. It damages wellbeing, shuts out and alienates large groups of people and for what: to reinforce the discourse of in-groups that are consistently proven to be bad for business? By accident?

While we’re talking words, we recently learned one that anyone who works for a start-up should know. Tralatitious (adj): transferred or passed down. So much of workplace culture is tralatitious: passed down from a previous generation just… because. Without examination or investigation. And that’s where damaging language (and the toxic culture that follows it) really comes from. No one is trying to be malicious or exclusive (well maybe some people, but they’re increasingly outnumbered), but if you make something without thought or interrogation you might make something unintended.

The best part of language is that it lets us articulate what we’re thinking and feeling, to reach for positive change. If we champion that articulation our businesses will be better, smarter, happier places to be. We think that’s a goal worth talking about.

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