Does the language that we use affect the way we think?

  • Jill Saville
  • 08/03/2018
  • 17:30
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International Women's Day 2018

Jill Saville is an Executive Coach, trainer, speaker and writer gives her views on International Womens's Day.
​Does the language that we use affect the way we think? ‘Sticks and stones may break my bones but words will never hurt me’

I only have to think about how the words people have said to me over the years have had an impact to know that words matter.

My grandmother used to say to me that ‘Sticks and stones may break my bones but words will never hurt me’ but even though I recited it over and over, the fact was that words did hurt me. I am sure that many of you have felt the same way. And it is not just the words other people have said that hurt us. Sometimes, the way we speak to ourselves can have just as much impact, if not more because it can be constant.

The words that we use to describe things often indicates how we were brought up; what environments we have enjoyed …… or endured. And today I want to stand up and be counted and say words matter.

This morning, I heard on the news that Dany Cotton, the first woman to be Commissioner of the London Fire Brigade, said that one small change we could make would be re-naming Fireman Sam Firefighter Sam. She said this first some time ago and I don’t need to read the savage responses she had at the time to know the usual words that are used to put women down when we dare to say something like this. Disparaging remarks – unkind words - can make many of us keep our heads down. We don’t want to be labelled one of those ‘bra burning’ feminists! We keep our distance.

Now I can almost hear people saying that this is just a character in a children’s book and she is being sensitive. And I would say, you are right. It is a character in a children’s book and thousands of kids read these books and both girls and boys need role models. And if girls and boys can have a role model with one easy word change ... why wouldn't you do that?

There are many debates about removing gender labels to words to show inclusion - Chair not Chairman is just one. I know women who say it doesn't matter or that they would rather be called Chairman. There may be many reasons for adopting a male gender label; it may feel that we have more credibility, or we don't want to be seen to rock the boat by highlighting the fact that we are women or maybe we say that it shouldn't matter….and there is truth is all of these.


But for me, particularly on International Women’s Day, WORDS MATTER. How the world chooses to speak about people and issues affects thoughts and mindsets. I want to follow the example of the children speaking out for change against the powerful NRA and say, enough is enough. We may upset some people with uncomfortable truths but we will also win hearts and minds. So today, as the incredible firefighter in chief Dany Cotton is quoted once again calling to change the name of Fireman Sam to Firefighter Sam, do not just dismiss it and turn your back on her.
Men and women need to show that we are all in this together!

Jill Saville is an Executive Coach, trainer, speaker and writer on the subjects of leadership and communication. She is also the chair of the British Chamber of Commerce People and Leadership Group

Image Credit: Aghaddir Ali/Gulf News