It IS what we say….or is it?

It is what we say….or is it?

Thank you!

“It is not what you say that matters but the manner in which you say it.”  (W.C. Williams American Poet, 18831963).

But is that actually true? Have you ever thought how much we depend on language – that is to say the actual words themselves?

Back in 1971 Mehrabian told us that only 7% of the meaning is actually carried by the words, 23% carried by the tone of voice.  This however is a very specific piece of research undertaken in a very specific context.  It would be wrong to generalise from this and state it as ‘fact’ across all communications (something these days often taken as such by the wider media and marketing gurus).

Language actually lies at the root of much of what we do 

It occurred to me the other day while writing some material for a programme I am leading during the summer that at work, at home and at play, language actually lies at the root of much of what we do.  Of course for this to be true, everything relies on the words that we are using being understood and having the meaning we intend when received by those who are listening to us, or reading what we have written.

This became very clear to me when working with some international students recently. We were considering the work of Belbin and his ideas about each person having ‘Preferences’ for the ‘Role’ they will naturally take when working in teams.  A simple concept, but one that can be completely misunderstood and misconstrued when these two key words are interpreted differently by different people.


Take the word ‘Preference’, for example.  Belbin, I think, intended the meaning to be something along the lines of ‘a natural characteristic’ or ‘automatic natural skill’. The UK’s Oxford English Dictionary however gives a meaning of “A greater liking for one alternative over another”, and the Cambridge On-line Dictionary says “the fact that you like something or someone more than another thing or person”.

Both of these definitions mention ‘liking’ which seems to me to introduce some idea about choice (incidentally, ‘like’ it seems to be defined as “find agreeable, want”). Belbin was not talking about what people like, or want, but much more that we each had inbuilt natural characteristics.

So, no wonder this was misunderstood by several people where English is not their first language; when they then used a dictionary to translate the word it stood a very good chance of being interpreted in a misleading way.


The other key word that Belbin uses that is key to his theory is ‘Roles’: ”A person’s function in a particular situation” says the Oxford English Dictionary. How would this translate to other languages? Many of my students did actually translate this to mean task roles at work as allocated by the manager – almost the complete opposite of what Dr Belbin was trying to illustrate in his ideas.

reveal listen

It strikes me that under many circumstances, the words we use are even more critical to peoples understanding that we might think. We should use words carefully, with due regard for how people of different nationalities, languages and cultures might interpret them.  To make matters worse, in the English language, we can actually draw some meaning from words that do not exist, when they are correctly used in a grammatical sense. Try this:

“…the strinklings gastipulatexed frobenaticly”

Meaningless……or is it? The strinklings, being obviously people or things, were undertaking the activity of gastipulatexing, in a manner that was frobenatic.

So, the American poet Williams’ idea that “It is not what you say that matters but the manner in which you say it” may not be strictly correct – but then we all know this instinctively, don’t we?  So what do I suggest then?  When writing, speaking (or listening):

  1. Be proactive – to truly speak or write clearly, ask yourself first “what is the point I am making, what I am trying to get across?”  Sounds basic, but how many of actually do this well?
  2. Be honest, self-aware and slightly self-critical: identify how the words you like to use or intend on using that could be misinterpreted. Could you swap them for different ones? Use a thesaurus yes, but don’t just pick complex fancy-sounding words for the sake of it!  Often, straightforward is best.
  3. Be careful when using emotive words – are these rousing the emotions in your audiences that you think they will? Do you even intend these reactions in the first place?
  4. If writing or speaking for a specific purpose (e.g. at a seminar or preparing a report) get someone independent to test drive your language by asking them to summarise what they have understood. Can they explain the meaning you intended, how different is their interpretation?
  5. If hearing or reading something that is new, unfamiliar or just doesn’t sound quite right, don’t just accept it – check that your interpretation and understanding is the one intended by perhaps carrying out further research or by asking for a contextual example

In today’s busy multi-cultural world where different languages are everywhere, do we really pay that much attention to the individual words we use? We should, because it matters more than we might realise, especially if we want to be understood!

This article is part one of two – in my next blog I will look at the way in which phrases and local expressions can also add to the fun and diversity of multicultural communication.


Belbin R.M. (1981): Management teams, why they succeed or fail, Butterworth Heinemann, Oxford UK
Mehrabian A (1971): Silent messages, Wadsworth, Belmont California

Professor Ian Favell
Ian is a Visiting Professor at Middlesex University and has been Chief External Verifier for CIPD for almost 20 years. As Principal Consultant for Assessor Training Ltd Ian is particularly interested in quality assurance, assessment and verification, training, learning and development, and the development and use of competencies and competency frameworks.
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