Language is a Super Power

"Language is not simply a reporting device for experience but a defining framework for it."

 —Benjamin Whorf

Benjamin Whorf was a fire protection engineer in the 1920s who noticed the effect of words on behavior. A company he inspected separated full gasoline drums from the empty ones. The workers were careful to not to smoke around the full ones and took their cigarette breaks around the empty ones. Only the empty drums contained vapors which were even more flammable. The word "empty" was accurate in terms of being the opposite of full, but inadequate in being able to properly express the danger potential.

Whorf's anecdote demonstrates the importance of examining your language culture. If words influence action, it's worth considering the hidden meanings and concepts of your workplace jargon.

Here are some other language tidbits worth pondering:

- Thoughts precede emotion. You can change how you feel by intentionally shifting your thinking and using different word choices—a fundamental component of Cognitive Behavioral Therapy.

- William Shakespeare contributed over 1700 words to the English language. One man! A few words that originate from the Bard include: marketable, summit, negotiate, exposure, excitement.

- Color is culturally relative. Not all cultures see blue and green as distinct colors. There are even cultures that have dark, light and red for their complete color lexicon. An interesting map to consult: the World Atlas of Language Structures Online.

- Gesturing with your hands as you speak not only increases your credibility but also improves thinking.

- According to the book The Emoji Code, by Vyvyan Evans (a language researcher), emojis are making communication better because they add empathy and tone of voice to sterile, easy-to-misinterpret texts and emails.

Remember: words are direct artifacts of culture. The words you choose to use and emphasize at work determine the kind of business you will have. Use them artfully! And be original!



The RIC Technique

You know the feeling of imminent doom, when your palms sweat, your heart sinks, and your best friend is the next martini. It's the moment when you look up, down, all around and see problems, problems, problems: the critical package was not delivered before the conference so your booth is bare. The phone is ringing off the hook with unhappy customers. The new campaign not only flopped—it was dead on arrival. It's hard to smile to potential clients or greet your Board with enthusiasm when moments like these stack up. How does anyone find the creative energy to solve problems if it's been a crappy day, week or month? 

My formula is  RITUAL - IMAGINATION - CHOICE in that order.


The first thing to do is make sure your morning routine has an element of peace and gratitude to start the day. Peace means finding ten minutes where alarms, adorable children, traffic, notifications, or media can be blocked out for ten minutes. Gratitude is being mentally aware of the good things in your life even if it's just having Frosted Flakes for breakfast or finding clean underwear when you thought you were out. These few moments of appreciation relieve some of the anxiety bad day/weeks/months bring by temporarily turning off biological stress responses. Science–and Tony Robbins–say that beginning your day with peace and gratitude builds physical immunity and a mental buffer.


Yes, you have problems, but what about the goal? Ignore the problems for a second and ask yourself, "What if?" Pretend you were Elon Musk, Beyoncé or Justin Trudeau—how would he/she approach the problem? What about Harry Potter or Pippi Longstocking? Leonardo da Vinci or Nikola Tesla? Coco Chanel or Amélie Poulain? Your mother or your father? Applying different approaches will unlock new avenues for you to explore. Most importantly, thinking from a "What if" scenario will help you see beyond problems and get back to focusing on your goal. There is more than one way to crack an egg.


Once you have multiple options in front of you, you are back in command. Successful executives are the ones who can take in information and make a fast decision—it keeps the business in motion. Once you've given yourself new avenues to explore, do not over-deliberate; just go for the option that makes the most sense in terms of your goal, has the best amount of data and the least terrifying outcome. Making a choice restores power and diminishes anxiety. If your answer requires approval from others, give them the options as part of your choice not to worry any longer: it's their job now. Often decisions with good data and intentions are wrong anyway; that's just how the universe works. And sometimes, it turns out you have to decide between "do I poke myself in the eye or chew my nails off my fingers,"—a painful outcome either way. Fortunately, humans are wired with a cognitive bias that will support your selection over the one you skipped. Making a choice helps you rebound faster because you exerted control over your circumstances and didn't wallow in self-doubt. It is easier to heal and recalibrate when you feel in charge and did the best you could.


Flemish TV, "Kördügüm," and worldview flipping

Netflix recently broadcast two seasons of the Turkish series "Kördügüm," or Intersection. Plenty of cheesy dialogue, globs of melodrama and unlikely plot twists, but nevertheless, Intersection was a life-changing experience.

My interaction with Turkish people has been limited to standing in line at the grocery store on the Pacificatiestraat or ordering a pita late night on the Waterpoort in Antwerp. With the exception of the lone Turkish student in my university department, I haven't met any Turkish people, been invited to a Turkish person's home, or visited Turkey. 

So what did TV show me? Other than Turkish family drama is basically the same as American or European drama (girl likes boy/ boy's family doesn't like girl or hot guy has commitment issues), Turks drink lots of tea, the highly regulated social norms of kissing create steamier romances (compare that with our Tinder hookup culture), and cucumbers and tomatoes seem to be the standard breakfast ingredients. Seems like irrelevant detail, but Intersection gave me a sense of living in Istanbul. The way they throw their hands, exasperated by the younger daughter's bad boyfriend and exclaim, "Allahalla," is me saying "Good Lord!" for the same reason. The variety of characters from a hijab-wearing grandmother to a modern female doctor with a high ponytail showcases the diversity of women. Not much unlike the range I see in Texas, from Bible-thumping, Jesus-obsessed beauty pageant types (my in-laws) to the oh-so-secular-we-are-proud-atheists intellects (in the same family). Intersection gave me the chance to live among Muslims, and no matter how liberal and non-judgmental I've believed myself to be, there's a difference pre- and post-viewing. I'm significantly–and shockingly so–more comfortable.

In Flanders, we rarely see people of color or with different accents on screen (If we do, they are tokens). It's not different from the American HBO series Girls or Danish series Borgen, but the lack of variety stunts the imagination and is out of step with the real world. Accented Dutch is an uncommon event, so it adds an extra barrier. When I speak the first few seconds are spent figuring out "Who is this lady? Where's she from" instead of ordinary communication. It's a natural response; people are genetically primed to fear what they are unaccustomed to. Accented Dutch is unfamiliar because it's largely absent from view.

If we want to be global-minded, we have to be exposed to other points of views, rituals, and accents. Learning to be comfortable with being uncomfortable not only makes us better thinkers and leaders, it makes us better people. So bring on the foreign Netflix series, and VRT, please some more foreign Dutch speakers. Fans of Flanders is not sufficient.

Oh, and one more thing about Intersection. If the lead actor, Ibrahim Çelikkol, ever finds himself single and needing an English coach, I can help. -- JHdeT


Get Your Reading On

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According to the father of neuroscience, Nobel laureate Santiago Ramón y Cajal, being able to focus on the dendrites and synapses under the lens of a microscope came thanks to the powerful imagination one develops by reading fiction.

An in-depth article detailing the connection between literature and innovation and Cajal is in the March 2017 edition of The Paris Review.

One of the greatest traits a leader can have is empathy which is proven to be strengthened by reading literature. A break from the "How to Succeed" books is also a mental vacation. If you want to pump up your brain, focus, and imagination with fiction this summer, here are five strong recommendations:

Frankenstein by Mary Shelley. At nineteen years old, Mary Shelley was holed up with famous poets Lord Byron & Percy Shelley in a castle in Switzerland when it began to rain non-stop preventing any outside exploration. To pass the time, the group began to tell each other ghost stories, with Mary's being the most captivating. Frankenstein, though slow and Gothic in the beginning, has modern themes about the drawbacks of innovation (think about genetically-modified food or the job threat posed by robots). The most compelling theme, however, is what happens in the absence of love.

1984 by George Orwell & The Handmaid's Tale by Margaret Atwood. Given the current political climate, worth reassessing our own stance on government, regulation, and power.

Things Fall Apart by Chinua Achebe. A deep-dive into the intricacies of power and justice whether native or colonial. 

The Counterfeiters by André Gide. Numerous characters and weaving plotlines address themes of what is original and what is a fake. This novel looks at the interplay and differences in both the physical (counterfeit gold coins) and invisible (characters' emotions vis-à-vis relationships).