November 8, 2017

RUSSELL | Word 2017

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Burnt popcorn has an odd appeal to it. It’s digestible nostalgia, and it tastes like bad TV movies and entire Saturdays spent in t-shirts and plaid pajama pants. I remember waking up on long summer days back home, during the glory days of tweenhood when I was too young to work and too old to watch shows listed as TV-G. I had chores to do and summer reading books to read and probably some practice or lesson for something on the schedule, but none of that was enough to keep me “busy” in any sense of the word. I had a lot of time and maybe the occasional burden, but never any responsibilities. Nothing I felt accountable for.

I have a friend who refers to his peers not as guys and girls but as men and women, at least when the person in question identifies as one of the two. He’ll tell you about the men he lives with, and if you aren’t accustomed to it you’ll assume he spends all his time with 30-year-olds. When he first said it in reference to me, I sat up a little straighter and held my head a little higher.

Your friends tell you you’re an adult on your 18th birthday, and then they push it back to your 21st, and then to graduation day, but as we continually move the threshold, it is refreshing to hear someone who was satisfied with the first one. Because to some extent I still feel like the kid in pajamas with popcorn.

But this isn’t a column about adulthood or childhood or any other ‘hood for that matter. It’s about words and the ways the subtleties they carry mean more than we often comprehend.

I met my first “girlfriend” in fifth grade biology class. She wrote me a letter on crumpled-up composition book paper and I felt like I’d be mean to not date her after the hard work she put into the relationship. The next day she said “I Love You” and I’d had enough and we’ve had a hard time talking to each other ever since.

It’s funny how dangerous the word “Love” is. We put so much weight on it. If you say it too early, you either must not know what it is or you’ve fallen too hard. Nevermind that no one who really understands what it is can describe it. No matter how much you actually feel love, you gotta manage its use, keep it valuable like it’s some sort of currency.

Love and happiness and a good chunk of the other words we hold close are also odd because we struggle to define them without using synonyms. To break them down into a few crucial elements always feels like an oversimplification. I think it’s because we don’t only use language to describe things we understand, but to make sense of what we don’t — to categorize the world around us. Some words are labels but others are like buckets, and it means something when we decide to put our feelings into certain buckets.

If I feel a connection to someone and happiness around them, it could either go into the “friendship” bucket or the “romance” bucket and the practical difference between the factors that determine which are sometimes hard to describe. But the bucket I decide impacts how I respond to those feelings.

Romance, however, is an obvious example.

Some of the most intriguing research in this area comes from behavioral economist Keith Chen, a professor at the UCLA Anderson School of Management. In a paper published in 2013, Prof. Chen describes his findings that individuals who speak languages that don’t distinguish between present and future tense tend to have higher savings. One of his major theoretical explanations for this trend is the fact that the words we use have such power over the way we interact with the world. If you aren’t used to categorizing the future you and the present you differently, you might be more likely to invest in your future as much as you support yourself in present day.

It’s no secret that the words we use to describe people impact the way we interact with them, but I fear that we often only think about this fact when someone’s using racist or sexist or homophobic language. We describe people with the hope of not offending them, but not always an intent to edify them.

Maybe referring to peers as adults is a small gesture, but when I heard my friend call me a man, it changed the rest of my day. If even the subtlest changes in word use can do that, maybe I should pay a bit more attention to what I say.

And maybe you should too.
Paul Russell is a junior in the School of Industrial and Labor Relations. He can be reached at prussell@cornellsun.com. Russelling Feathers appears alternate Wednesdays this semester.