There’s a usual hesitation to correct the words people use, particularly when there doesn’t seem to be a big difference from what we prefer. We don’t want to sound superficial nor pedantic so we choose to just let it go. I’ve personally had these moments when I hold myself back from correcting terminology. It is just semantics after all, right?
I’ve come to realize though that words do play an important role in building work culture. Even if two words can mean basically the same thing, it’s possible that they relay completely different undertones.
The thought came to me in a discussion I’ve recently had with my colleagues at ATeam Business Software Solutions Co. when I realize the word “approve” was often being used in our Slack conversations. For some reason, this made me feel a little uncomfortable.
“Approve” means basically the same thing as “agree”. But it can convey a lot of different things, both positive or negative. It can imply a “shared accountability”, and it did in my previous work. It meant that whoever “approved” something, shared in the creator’s accountability. That’s a good thing.
It could also imply “authority”, on the other hand, and that one party has some form of it over the other. While this isn’t necessarily a bad thing, it could be a bad fit for an organization that wants to promote autonomy and self-organization. The word “agree”, though, sounds a lot more collaborative, and that could make the difference in how people see their place in the organization.
I recently watched an interesting TED-Ed video that talked about the word “Orwellian” and how ironically, the use of the word itself is often what Orwell warned about in his most popular book, “1984”. Basically, the point of the video was, if you want to change a culture, you first change its language. And I found that to make a lot of sense. Culture manifests first and foremost in the way people talk to each other.
I know how this whole thing may come off to a lot of people. I’ve been there, too, and I’ve often rolled my eyes when someone points out the “wrong” use of words. But my intent is about more than just jargon and buzzwords. It’s about the sense of one’s place, role, and expectations that certain words can bring. And that’s something worth correcting.
Have you noticed words that have come to define your team’s culture? Can you improve them to better fit the culture you want to build? Share your thoughts in the comments!
Bonus tip, learned from Rands‘ Slack Community: If you use Slack for your team communications, Slackbot can be configured to respond to certain words automatically. There’s nothing like a gentle reminder from a bot to promote the use of more culturally appropriate words to everyone in your organization.
Dexter is an engineering manager at Synacy, a co-founder of ATeam Business Software Solutions, and founder of TechManagement.Life. He loves to share his experiences and thoughts on managing software teams and running businesses.