Have you ever noticed, upon meeting a new person, that they have a word they like to repeat, over and over, without even noticing it?
Maybe the word is “awesome” or, “cool” or “basically” or, in the case of my cousin, “shitshow.”
Think about the phrases that you use, unthinkingly, every day.
You do have your own specialized vocabulary. How can you find the phrases that make your donors give? Jules Brown has some good phrases here.
How can phrases or vocabulary change our perceptions? Maybe they can make us back down without a fight. Or maybe they can describe a new way of looking at the world.
I took a workshop last weekend about boundaries and one of the things the trainer said struck me.
She said, “New language won’t solve all your problems and make all of your messy relationships neat and sanitized, but it CAN start to help you think differently about how to solve problems.”
Before you look at your own language, you’re like a fish swimming in the ocean. The fish doesn’t notice the water, because it’s always there. But there are so many ways to ask for your nonprofit, and some of them will turn donors off. It’s important to figure out how you normally ask for things, so that you can adjust yourself to someone else’s style, and get the gift.
Your Language Determines Your Thoughts? AKA Linguistic Relativity
“It seems likely that the principal software used in the human brain consists of words, metaphors, disguised metaphors, and linguistic structures in general. The Sapir-Whorf-Korzybski Hypothesis (or Whorfianism as it’s known today), in anthropology, holds that a change in language can alter our perception of the cosmos. A revision of language structure, in particular, can alter the brain as dramatically as a psychedelic. In our metaphor, if we change the software, the computer operates in a new way.” — Frank Herbert, ‘The Dosadi Experiment’
The theory of linguistic relativity has been torn down by a number of experts including Noam Chomsky, but lately there’s been a resurgence in interest around it, and people are coming to the conclusion that language can certainly influence thought, but not determine it.
Some New Vocabulary for You
I bought a book recently called “They Have a Word for It” by Howard Rheingold. There are a number of phrases from other languages that describe concepts that we just don’t have in English. I will share a couple of my favorites with you.
“The mistaken belief that a symbol is the same as the reality it represents.” [noun]
The word maya is related to the English word measure, because the root ma means to measure or lay out, as in laying out the plan of a building. It can be defined as “the creation of forms” All the countless insects, goddesses, demons, and wise men are part of it, as are all the empires and planets and cycles of history. Those who know that the goal of Hindu theology theology is to achieve liberation from the bonds of illusion often mistake maya for a strictly negative label denoting the illusions that cause suffering. but this is also an illusion, for the deeper meaning of the term is “existence” Maya relates not only to the endless play of forms and the void from which they spring, but to the dangerous attachments people tend to develop in relation to their conceptual maps of the world.
Your Language Can Change Your Life
For example, I had a bully in my early life. Generally, I would just take the bully’s abuse. Until one day. The bully started to bully me and then I said, “Don’t START with Me” and they left me alone.
If I had known that would be all it would take to get the bully to back down, I would have done it years ago. But I was too afraid. I automatically assumed that nothing would work to make the bully back down.
In New Guinea, they have another word to help them resolve conflicts.
Biritiluo (Kiriwina, New Guinea)
“Comparing Yams to Settle Disputes” [noun]
In the Trobriand Islands, settling disputes between different social groups can be a thorny matter, even in a racially and culturally homogeneous society like that of the Kiriwina, who believe that people can live together in peace only if nobody talks about what everybody knows concerning certain sensitive matters. Because of taboos built into their use of language, opposing Kiriwina individuals and groups can find themselves involved in mortal combat if they happen to say the wrong thing int he heat of anger. In order to avoid or defuse the potentially explosive situations, the Kiriwina resort to a linguistic abstraction involving an inanimate object that has great symbolic importance. The yam. Anthropologist Annette Weiner, who lived among the Kiriwina, wrote, “A “biritilulu” produces more fear and anxiety than any other public event I witnessed.” This fearsome ritual occurs when two opposing clans gather in front of witnesses, then retire for a short time and produce a number of yams, which are then exhibited and compared against one another!
Each adult male in society owns a yam house, which is filled not by the individuals unassisted efforts but through the work of all the men who are elated to the owner by means of kinship and clan connections. Because the yam is a currency and a symbol of important social relationships, the act of displaying a yam is a potent means of drawing attention to the power, abilities, status or political intentions of the person or group who displays it. When a biritilulo is organized, the men have loud, and frightening but ultimately harmless exchanges of boasts about the size of the opposing clan’s yams, and fighting is averted.” -They Have A Word For It, Howard Rheingold, pg 118-119
Now imagine that you are coming from a foreign culture, to ask for a gift. How should you respond?
By LISTENING when the donor is talking, and figuring out what words have particular stress, where they are at with supporting your cause, and what their values are. They may not want to compare yams with you, they may not have a complete picture of your cause yet. Or they may be caught in Maya, or something that has nothing to do with your cause.
It’s your job to learn what your vocabulary is, so that you can figure out quickly where the donor is, if they have any incorrect assumptions about your cause, what particular program they really connect with, and respond in the right way to help you get that gift.
If you’d like to learn more about which vocabulary your donors want to hear, check out these posts:
Much Ado About Major Gifts Fundraising & Language
Change your Language, Change your life
18 Ways to Demand Dignity At Work
When You Say-I hear
Do You Have Any Thought-Terminating Cliches? Are you sure?
What is Internalized Oppression?
What you don’t know CAN hurt you