Language in the new normal

“The first was that if one did not master one’s circumstances, one was bound to be mastered by time; and the second was Montaigne’s maxim that the surest sign of wisdom is Cheerfulness.” A Gentleman in Moscow

These are Count’s words of wisdom to his daughter in the book ‘A Gentleman in Moscow.’ Though fictional, the book is about Count Rostov who has been sentenced to house arrest for his life in a luxury hotel. The Count, as the title suggests, is a gentleman, knowledgeable about almost everything fine in life – books, music, wine, etiquettes. He has been confined to spend 30 years in a luxury hotel. While the world outside is unfolding through Russian revolution, the Count never complains about his state of house arrest, he never loses his cheerfulness and wisdom. When his daughter, a girl he gets to bring up as his child, is stepping out of the hotel, he says, to remember two things: “The first was that if one did not master one’s circumstances, one was bound to be mastered by time; and the second was Montaigne’s maxim that the surest sign of wisdom is Cheerfulness.”

I have been going back to this reference, even if fictional, ever since lockdown began. That’s my mental model helping me to adapt to the new life under lockdown and uncertainty.  

What are mental models? Mental models are how we understand the world. Mental models shape what we think, how we break down complexity into a simpler understanding and how we use our understanding to build connections and  opportunities. I am going to show how our thinking based on a mental model can make us work better in the new normal.

The Mental Model – language

The vocabulary of our everyday spoken language has a huge influx of words that were not frequently used earlier. Lockdown, social distancing, quarantine, contact tracing, flatten the curve, community spread, new normal, essential workers, hand wash are words that are ruling our behavior today. Some of these words like community spread or social distancing are now being used in other languages too, verbatim, not as a translation.

How do we decipher this new language? In his recent article on how to fight future pandemics, Bill Gates writes, “The years after 2021 may resemble the years after 1945.” He refers to mental models when World War II had ended. While framing the new mental model around language, here are some references from the new words and phrases that entered our language after the World War.

Indian army had been fighting for British Army. An Indian origin word that entered the mainstream was “Blighty” from the Urdu word “vilayati”, meaning “foreign” or “British.” During the War, it evolved into a nickname for the motherland, or Great Britain. “Dear Old Blighty” was a common sentimental reference, suggesting a longing for home by soldiers in the trenches. During that war, a “Blighty wound” would mean a wound serious enough to be sent back home for recuperation. Another Indian word that became famous is “cushy” from the Urdu word khush, or “pleasure.” Soon everyone was using cushy to describe plum assignments, trenches that weren’t under a foot of water, or front lines that were rarely active. Wash-out was used as a slang for being eliminated from training during World War, later it stands for failure.

Though Social distancing, first used in 1957, was originally an attitude rather than a physical term, but now we all understand it as keeping a physical distance between ourselves and others to avoid infection https://public.oed.com/blog/the-language-of-covid-19/ 

PPE is now almost universally recognized as personal protective (or protection) equipment—an abbreviation dating from 1977 but probably restricted to healthcare and emergency professionals till now. PPE is now mainstream. WFH that didn’t have much credibility or acceptance with doubts regarding loss of productivity will see a shift in attitude towards the usage. It will be considered efficient and will earn more respect than usual. 

Language influences behaviour and some of these terms will shape culture around us in the years to come. As businesses, we need to think, how can we use the mental model of language to shape behaviour in the new situation.  

How do we turn thoughts into action? 

Language to gain trust in the new normal

As businesses, big or small, emerge out of the basements of darkness and lockdown, they will need to regain trust of consumers. Safety is a primary need. The pandemic has violated that need. To illustrate how to use mental models and turn our thoughts into action, I have chosen examples in the Food industry.  Food and other essential items & respective delivery services are the active industries that are bridging distancing and delivering emotional connect. This category is setting benchmarks for others to follow and build consumer connections. 

1 Show your language. In the course SHIFT, which develops Habits & Ideas for Forward Thinking, we discuss a habit – Show, don’t tell. It focuses on description versus instruction. You can show the safety measures through icons on apps, on messages, on packaging and on every piece of communication. Design icons are readily available for hand wash, social distancing etc. and in due course you will find designs for safe packaging too. We need visual and descriptive language to heal together and to regain trust

2 NO is a powerful word. It attracts attention. Writing, NO human touch, in packaging & other communication may increase the chances of sale. Dan Jurafsky is a professor of linguistics and computer science at Stanford University & author of, ‘The Language of Food: A Linguist Reads the Menu’.  In a study, he says, ‘We also found expensive crisps more likely to use the language of comparison (“less fat”, “best in America”, not like “any other chip”) or negation (“never fried”, “no fluorescent orange”). In fact crisps cost 4 cents more per ounce for every additional “no” on the packet. The secret language of food

3 Reviews, like always, make a difference to the way we transact. Dan Jurafsky, writes, ‘We found that when people write a “1-star” review, they use the language of trauma: These terrible reviews are not complaints about bad food or atmosphere but rather a coping mechanism for dealing with minor trauma caused by face-to-face interactions. People felt attacked, and their instinctive response underlines the importance of personal interactions for commerce, whether we’re asking people to choose a restaurant or a doctor.”

As normalcy returns, which is a long time away, everyone would be coming out of trauma, the trauma of lockdown, of ill-health, of business loss etc. Language is a way to express and heal. Creating more options to receive reviews, to listen to the consumer with deep intent, would help build trust. Nobody is expecting a perfect world of service or products, but everybody is expecting the feeling of being heard. 

Language is powerful in the business of relationships. How you communicate works for you even when your working hours have ended. 

The Takeaways:

  1. Show your language- use icons, write descriptions to build trust of safety.
  2. Saying ‘NO’ is important too as the word distancing will evolve in many ways. Distancing and safety norms will keep the word ‘NO’ alive in our minds.  
  3. Make a room to listen, give some space to heal and embrace. 

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