The array of languages humans use to communicate with each other is vast. Across cultures and experiences, language gives way to expression of our experience of life and imbues a sense of meaning. In some languages, there are words and expressions to describe certain experiences that don’t exist in others. Take Filipino, for example. You know that urge to pinch or squeeze something that is irresistibly cute? It’s called “gigil.” Or how about that strange hope to die before someone you love deeply does, because you cannot stand to live without them? In Arabic, that’s “ya’arburnee.” Language shapes us. It orients us to what we value most as that thing rises up in us, calling for expression.

By Angela Parker

Even within one culture, language itself is varied. In 1961, Martin Joos, a linguist and German professor, defined five registers (or tenors) of language:

  • Frozen: the static register. 
This is the language that belongs to printed words, the Bible, the Pledge of Allegiance – words that stay the same every time.
  • Formal: the language of wealth and politics. 
This is the register of one-way participation where there is typically a proper format to follow like speeches, pronouncements or public introductions between politicians.
  • Consultative: the language of business. 
It is two-way, no prior knowledge is assumed, and interruptions are allowed. Consultative language typically takes place between teacher/student, employee/employer, doctor/patient, etc.
  • Casual: the language of groups. 
One must be a member to engage. Communication is dependent on nonverbal assists. This is common among friends in a social setting, on blogs, and in personal emails.
  • Intimate: the language of “know me.” 
This is the language of intimacy. It is non-public; intonation is more important than wording or grammar; it is private vocabulary. This is most common among lovers, family members, and close friends.

With each other, we can gauge the breadth and depth of our relationships by the language registers we have entered into. In business, we remain within the careful walls of formal and consultative language (sometimes slipping into casual when we are feeling safe or have had a drink) and it’s important that we do. Business is a tactical arrangement of human assets to achieve a goal. We are working together to make something happen, but that doesn’t mean we’re part of a group and it certainly does not mean we are intimate.

Or does it?

As human beings – as opposed to inanimate objects – we go with ourselves everywhere. Try as we may, we cannot wrap our emotional selves, our intuitive selves, our psychology, or our vulnerability in a package to leave behind while we go to work. The workplace itself is a minefield of the most triggering topics – money, self worth, group dynamics, power, authority. There are days where we feel strong and on at work and there are days when we are vulnerable and slip into language registers we regret. It’s no wonder people of all types have turned to the sage advice of teachers like Brene Brown, who speaks of the Power of Vulnerability or Mike Robbins, who advocates that we “bring our whole selves to work.”

No matter how well it’s done or how valuable it is, bringing our whole selves to work is a complicated thing. We are, in fact, working together to achieve professional goals. And achieving goals means having space to be as healthy and well balanced as we can be. What are some ways to accomplish these things without leaning so far into the casual and intimate language registers that we end up sacrificing productivity?

Create free space; don’t take responsibility.

Sometimes employees simply cannot bring their whole selves to work. Sometimes they need to be given permission to be human and deal with the affects of anxiety, depression, or other mental and emotional difficulties in the comfort of their own homes. In those cases, acknowledge that mental health is as legitimate as a common cold or flu and qualifies as a sick day (this may require some HR policy adjustments).

In other cases, employees just need to know that they are safe to be imperfect at work. While managers cannot (and should not) take the same responsibility for an employee’s health and happiness that a therapist might, they can set the example that it’s okay to admit when you’re having an off day. In fact, one RW client installed the paintings of a local artist throughout the office whose work focuses on mental health. The silent message they intended to communicate to employees and all others who entered the building was: you are safe to be yourself here.

Integrate translatable, healthy practices into regular meetings.

Most people did not grow up in homes where we were guided to practice healthy coping mechanisms. Instead, we learned to follow the examples of our parents and before we knew what were doing, we adopted habits that have either helped or hurt us in our adult lives, or both. In workplaces – whether virtual or in person – we have the perfect setup to gradually teach healthy practices that benefit the business and translate to day-to-day life.

Here are three books that can help you make healthier practices an expectation at your workplace:

Death By Meeting
This simple narrative lays out a way to make meetings something to look forward to. The concepts apply both virtually and in person and, when applied, give team members a sense of focus, consistency, and direction that in turn helps avoid unnecessary work related anxiety and frustration.

Tribal Leadership
The same principles that apply to personal human relationship apply here. Humans regard each other (inside and outside company culture) on a 5-stage spectrum, from a hostile stance, to working together to change the world. Be careful with this one; as soon as your team reads it, expectations will rise as they imagine being a cohesive team that works together with the shared sentiment: We’re Great!

What We Say Matters
As hippy-dippy as it may seem, the practice of nonviolent communication is revolutionary and often life-changing. This practice requires each person to take responsibility for their feelings and reactions by the language they use. Rather than blaming others and fostering toxic in-fighting, NVC sets a formula for communication that moves team members past personal and emotional reactions to a tenor of proactive respect.

A little less conversation, a little more action (please).

In some cases, talking about how we feel can lead to emotions and even behaviors that can make things worse. In an interview with Krista Tippet, Dr. Bessel Van Der Kolk, Medical Director of the Trauma Center at the Justice Resource Institute in Brookline, MA, says: “We can talk till we’re blue in the face, but if our primitive part of our brain perceives something in a particular way, it’s almost impossible to talk ourselves out of it, which, of course, makes sort of verbal psychotherapy also extremely difficult because that part of the brain is so very hard to access.” He advocates for physical work that allows people to express the things they’re feeling with their bodies, and without talking.

A great example? Volunteering. Humans beings are empowered to be “agents of their own recovery” when they participate in hands on labor that seeks to solve a problem, whether through painting a school, providing disaster relief, or any other form of volunteering. Political protests are another example. We are desperate to convert the ache in our souls into physical actions and release the energy that causes the pain.

Realized Worth works with companies to take corporate volunteering programs to the next level. Reach out to discuss how we can improve and increase the impact of your program!

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Angela Parker
Co-founder and Partner, Realized Worth
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