Language Matters

scrabble letters

As a keen linguist (Spanish/German/French/Portuguese/Italian) and as a communications professional, I’m fascinated by the way the words we choose shape the meaning someone takes from our communications.

Those of you who follow me on Twitter (@andrewhesselden), will know that I often engage in political discussions about European matters. (If you seek to avoid politics, my internal comms ramblings are often found at @coralfishcomms and @icchannelcheck)

Grouping governments with citizens

One of my pet-hates is when people refer to “the UK” as a country when they actually mean “the current UK government“. I see this most often when ordinary citizens (UK or non-UK), discuss, give opinions or try to explain what’s happening in politics or international negotiations.

“The UK did this”, or “the UK believes that”, or “The UK would never agree to xxxxxxx”.

The problem with this lack of precision of the term “The UK” is that it sweeps everyone (including the people who live here, and UK citizens wherever they live in the world) into a bucket. Then usually the offender goes on to say something, as if it applies to every one of the 66,000,000 people who live in England, Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland. These opinions and statements are construed as being representative of everyone and end up being generalisation or stereotypes.

This is usually what makes people angry and sparks off heated discussion, because the imprecision makes it personal.

In a similar way, you can see misunderstandings when UK-resident people and politicians refer to “the EU“.

Until recently when people talked about “The EU” they usually meant the organisations and institutions that sit in Brussels & Strasbourg. More often than not they were talking about “The European Commission”, which is essentially the civil service that glues everything together. This vagueness of meaning isn’t helped by the fact that The EU has a legal personality of its own, yet in effect it is simply a club of members, who take decisions jointly but as individual states.

But lately, now the UK is no longer part of the EU-club, I’ve noticed people refer to “the EU” as a single geographical country, like a super-state. In reality it’s still 27 separate countries, even though they share a customs union and most belong to the Schengen zone along with 4 non-EU countries (Switzerland, Norway, Iceland & Liechtenstein). There may not be any border checkpoints, in normal times, but the countries are still “individual countries”, so much so that each has chosen to manage its own borders and rules during the covid crisis. But the effect of referring to the area collectively as “the EU”, whether deliberate or otherwise, suggests the countries are not independent.

More precision

I try to use the term EU27 to refer to the grouping of countries themselves, the EU when referring to the club of nations and the European Commission if I specifically mean the organisations in Brussels/Strasbourg/Luxembourg.

I would never set sail from Dover, England and arrive in Calais, EU. I would arrive in France. So why do we refer to it as “The EU” now?

This stuff really matters because the words we use have the power to shape the sense that people take from them.

It makes the difference between whether we consider ourselves part of “us” or part of “them”.

“Arriving in France”, not “arriving in the EU”

Relevance to Internal Communications

So how is this relevant to internal comms?

I think the language we use to describe “us” and “them” is very important because it influences how the reader engages with the message. When we refer to the organisation we work for, we might use any of the following terms:

  • Company Name
  • Company Name Ltd/PLC
  • The Company
  • the Organisation
  • The Bank
  • The Charity
  • The Association

We should think carefully about which words we use, and whether to write in the first- or third-person or use the active- or passive-voice.

What message are you sending when you use “The Bank” or “The Company” rather than “we“?

Do you want to bring employees along with you, or do you want to distinguish between the organisations and its employees?

In particular, think about how middle managers and even company executives will feel when they read your communications if you talk about “employees” and “the company”? Will they feel you are including them as part of “the company”, or will they think they are being spoken to as an “employee” of the company?

As always, I’d love to hear your thoughts. Please post a comment below!

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