The Power of Words

Malcolm Gladwell is one of my favourite authors. He shakes up your perspective, he shows you that things are not always what they seem, and he will make you connect dots you never imagined connecting.

In chapter 2 of his book blink -the power of thinking without thinking, Gladwell discusses how our actions can be primed, he shares a test devised by John Bargh in which he asked participants to come and answer a set of scrambled sentences, then walk out. What they didn’t know is that when they walked out through the corridor, they walked more slower. The sentences he provided had keywords that described the state of being old like ‘worried’ ‘bingo’ ‘gray’ etc. They were remotely about being old, however, the partcipants’ adaptive unconscious knew how to quickly link these words and act upon it. Later, Bargh did the same with words that would prime you to be rude or patient and found the same results; unconsciously, behind that looked door, you are waaay smarter than you think. But the problem is that you would not even notice and correlate the effect of these words on your actions, very daunting if you think about it!

We are constantly surrounded by words, and the messages associated by these terms unconsciously do influence our actions.  Race boxes are another way of priming ones behaviour; Gladwell shared an experiment where a group of African Americans had to tick their race on an exam paper, the ones who checked the race box scored significantly lower than the ones who didn’t, simply because it unconsciously reminded them of the stereotype of being an African American!

This made me think of the effect of culturally embedded terms that prime our actions as Egyptians. In a less geeky way; do Egyptians act in a certain way because of the words they use?

Keeping in mind that a change in behaviour might be what initiated the use of the term in the first place, However, if there is something such as words priming our actions, would changing these terms change our behaviour? Here are two examples:

1- Egypt: A very familiar word you might be thinking, but give it some deeper thought. I’m referring here to how we use the word Egypt to speak of ‘Cairo‘. The majority of Egyptians refer to Cairo as ‘Masr’ or Egypt, while other cities are mentioned with their original names. This misuse of ‘Egypt’ happens because of our view of Cairo as the core of Egypt, if you look into it from a citizen point of view, Egypt is Cairo. As many other countries, more resources are spent on the capital city; Cairo has more job opportunities, better education, better health care, a better life in general. However, maintaining this status quo does not empower a country. Right now cities are being categorised according to their specialities; tourism in Aswan and Luxour, and Hurghada and Sharm Elsheikh, Agriculture in villages like Damanhour, fishery from cities on the Mediterranean sea, beduins in Sinai and so on. Which is not a bad thing at all, but it shouldn’t be the only thing these cities have.

Though most of the responsibility lies on the government, how can we be part of the solution; How can a government encourage its citizens to spread all over the country and help build other cities? Would adjusting the way we view Cairo by changing how we call it prime our actions?

2- Gehaz:  ‘جهاز’ is a term developed to denote the process of marriage preparation, though only focuses on the financial side. So when a family prepares their daughter for marriage -Negahezik the verb form- then its time to buy all the kitchen ware, crystal vases, curtains and what not. Same goes for the guy, a guy is ready and prepared when he can provide an apartment. But marriage preparation is not only confined to financial stability, it also involves emotional or mental preparation; a girl might be  emotionally not ready for a commitment, or a guy might be mentally consumed in his new job, having a ready apartment or a set of turkish cups certainly does not make them ‘prepared’ for a marriage. And i guess ‘gehaz’ started to only address the financial aspect of marriage because of the insane financial requirements one needs before getting married in Egypt.

Would redefining the word ‘gehaz’ to include other methods of preparation change our attitude towards the financial burden of marriages in Egypt?

What about you? Can you think of other words we use in Egypt or in your own country that might be priming your behaviour?