Sometimes it’s not what you say but how you say it. The good news is by thinking about it and acting according, your words can have a positive, powerful affect on those around you!
I think it was Roy Williams, the brilliant author of The Wizard of Ads and the reclusive potentate of Wizard Academy (I dare you to go. It’s a gas.) who told me that “Man is a creature that assigns complex meanings to sound.” In other words, language is nothing but sound floating in the air before your ears pick it up and pass it to your brain, which turns it into meaning.
A well-known British linguist came to New York to give a lecture on the double negative, an expression in which two negatives add up to a positive, such as, “He’s not unlike his sister.” In his lecture, the British professor said that in all his years of research into the languages of the world he had never come across a double positive, that is to say, two positives adding up to a negative.
An American scholar and a native New Yorker was sitting in the front row. When he heard this claim from the visiting speaker, he dismissed the comment with a wave of his hand, saying in a loud, sarcastic voice, “Yeah, yeah.” The audience exploded in laughter.
While the American may have won the room, the Brit might have won the argument by pointing out that, in this case, “Yeah, yeah,” was made negative by the sarcastic intonation and the gesture of dismissal. In fact, the two words could just as well express a positive.
For instance, suppose you’re listening to a child struggle to tell a story. In order to encourage her, you might say with a nod and a rising intonation, “Yeah…? Yeah…?”
The important issue for us is not whether “Yeah, yeah” qualifies as a double positive. The real issue is that as speakers, we like to think that our intended meaning resides solely in the words we speak, whereas listeners find deeper, more complex meanings in the multi-dimensional experience of words coded with intonations and gestures.
In fact, listeners detect meaning by interpreting tone of voice, hand gestures, tilts of the head, and dancing eyebrows. “Yeah, yeah,” is either negative or positive depending on how it’s said.
Suppose your boss says, “Please come to my office now.” Depending on her tone of voice and facial expression, you could experience almost anything, from, “Oh, my God, I’m losing my job,” to, “Hot-diggety-dog, I’m getting promoted.”
Words count and content is king, so choose your words with care. But when you speak, think of them as sounds in the air, to be given meaning by the play of your voice and body.