Regularly recurring irritation about how people communicate with each other and how the media reports on it, ensured that I have said goodbye to almost all social media these days. Radio and TV rarely are turned on. I only scan the online newspapers quickly and superficially for trends in reporting because people should not be completely blind to what is happening in society.

This irritation started to grow by the end of my high school days, over 45 years ago. I discovered the addictive power of keywords, or as is also said these days: trigger words. By using the word ‘circle’ I could quite easily have a math teacher give a complete course on astrology to the whole class (which of course everyone liked much more than the somewhat dry material we had to digest). With another teacher ‘medieval wisdom’ worked better. And from my classmates I was able to extract whole expositions about theater, philosophy, football and other subjects. Everyone had their own unique words, individual and specific, which elicited an often very predictable response. At first, playing with it and trying it out gave me a sense of power. I didn’t understand it very well though; it was more of a dexterity, and besides, I had no idea at all that I, of course, also featured such words myself. During my studies at the university, I started to dislike the effect, or that trick and how it was used very often. Gradually I changed from an extroverted and self-confident guy to a more introverted and insecure person. It was not until the sixth decade of my life and after many courses, training and life experience that I had a greater and deeper understanding of how the human mind works. That was around the time I started to write down my own philosophy “Reality it’s (just) a thought! “.

After all the revelations in the early 21st century regarding the USA and its behavioral culture, the corona pandemic followed with communication that resembles war language. Again and again I wondered where the common sense was, the open and critical attitude, with respect and understanding towards each other. In a web of words I see the principles of persuasion according to Cialdini frequently applied. I notice conscious polarization and demonization on both sides. I see a deluge of keywords being poured over us, and what’s even weirder, new ones are created precisely because of all the one-way communication. That brought me back to the use and misuse of keywords, now that the line between influence and manipulation has turned into quicksand.

Words decrypt

but what?

Google briefly for “keywords” and “trigger words“. Many management and marketing websites give tips on how to use them consciously in presentations, in conversations, for sales, in negotiations, establishing an image or directing public opinion, etc. Advertising forces us with new qualifications, such as ‘bio’, ‘natural’ and ‘trusted’. Words like ‘offer’ and ‘discount’ scream at us. Even ‘fake news’ has now become a trigger word that labels any arbitrary message as untrustworthy. All’s intended to influence people, if not consciously manipulate them in a certain direction. Spin doctors earn gold by devising scenarios in images and writing, to leave a positive impression, and to brush off further critical questions in advance. Or to implicitly support a motivation, even if the material used is not related to the subject at all (think acts of war, reception or refusal of refugees, environmental problems, persecution and oppression, etc.).

Only a few sites indicate the use of keywords in a therapeutic sense to help people better understand their behavior and thinking. Discovering frequently used or avoided words can say something about a person’s deeper motivation. With NLP you can train yourself in all kinds of skills.

So far I haven’t found a single website that teaches you how to avoid using keywords, or how to guard against aggressive confrontations with trigger words. In a way I understand that. I don’t think there is a completely neutral language, if only because the same word evokes a different reaction in each of us. We all carry different baggage with us, experiences, associations, lessons, people who have already influenced us unnoticed. Still, it would be nice if awareness of the negative impact of keywords would be better trained. Now that your external privacy is increasingly protected, the next step may be to warn against invasion of your inner privacy.

In this post I can only tell what works for me. I don’t have a proven recipe that is guaranteed to work for everyone. Below is my list of suggestions:

  1. As soon as you sense an impulsive or intuitive response, take a few deep breaths, step back and try to understand what happened to you. Stripped of emotion, communication usually is a lot easier to process.
  2. Ask yourself how realistic the presented stuff really is. What interest is one really pursuing? For many people, the end justifies the means.
  3. Recognize different types of keywords. Some work purely individually, giving you a sense of unique recognition. Others are more focused on the collective, and give you the feeling of belonging. There are trendy words, which in the past and in the future no longer play a role, but now, due to the massiveness with which it is shared on social media, are hot and trending. And then there are the more archetypal words, which respond to primal fears, such as being flooded, dark depths, obscure influences, children in danger and you name it. You only have to think of fairy tales, or watch horror movies, to recognize them.
    Tip 1: The word “virus” is a modern, media and government-imprinted archetypal trend word, addressing the invisible and elusive that destroys you from within.
    Tip 2: large numbers are confusing and frightening. As soon as you look more at the proportional relationships with other (perhaps also large) numbers, you get a calmer feeling.
  4. Keywords are often packaged in a context that seems to neutralize the whole. You respond to the trigger word, and the narrator can always say not to take that word out of context. Many discussions afterwards revolve around context, which is slippery by nature.
    For example, planned communication by companies, government and other organizations, is a carefully coordinated story. It is agreed what is to be told and what is not. What is given as context, and in what order. Who does the story, and who provides the accents (‘good cop, bad cop’ approach). You immediately recognize it when questions always get the same answer: a Q&A has been drawn up to prevent communication calamities.
  5. Watching movies is fun; I like that myself. I do realize that the combination of image, sound and text has a huge impact on me. That’s why I always try to put a film in the right context afterwards, such as the time in which it was made versus the time in which it plays. The originating country and culture of the film, and the messages that trickle through, whether intentionally or not. However realistic the film adaptation is, it is not your reality. You can be a fan, but it remains a surreal world relative to your frame, even if a director tries to be as realistic as possible. You are always just looking through a constructed window.

I like to read a good book, a novel of any genre. In it I can completely drift away, guided by the author who plays with the nuances of the language, who also works with keywords, and conjures up a magical world with them. I feel my inner being stirred, and my thinking stimulated. But when I close the book (or better: turn off my e-Reader), I’m back in the here and now, with both feet on the ground again. It’s not exactly a tip, but definitely worth it in this time of over-communication and polarization.

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