The power of positive language


Your phrasing sets the tone

What if there was an easy trick to be more persuasive and more positive, just by changing your mindset and the way you phrase sentences?

English speakers have the option to voice both a positive statement and a negative statement that convey the same meaning. For instance, “come to the restaurant on time” and “do not come to the restaurant late” both deliver similar messages; however, the connotation behind the former is much less negative.[bctt tweet=”What if there was an easy trick to be more persuasive and more positive?” username=”multilingualmag”]

The English language is laden with opportunities to formulate negative speech in place of a more positive dialogue. Although initially a phrase slanted in both a negative and positive light would appear to have the same influence (such as with the two aforementioned phrases), according to business consultant Sarah Simoneaux, we would actually comprehend the positive statement 30–40% times faster than we would the negative one.

Not only are positive statements more quickly received, but as expected they are also well-received by the audience.

In another example, cognitive and mathematical psychologist Amos Tversky and 2002 Nobel Memorial Prize-winner in Economic Sciences Daniel Kahneman illustrated this positive framing bias in an experiment. The scientists presented treatment options to “patients” for a hypothetical disease in two ways, one emphasizing the positive outcomes of choosing the treatment and the other the negative outcomes. Subjects chose between A and B in two different scenarios. The graph below details the positive and negative slants in explanation of treatment options A and B within the experiment. The main difference between the two highlighted how many people would live vs. how many people would die.

A whopping 72% of those surveyed chose treatment A when it was positively framed compared to treatment B, while only 22% chose it when it was negatively framed — even though both descriptions of A (and B, for that matter) refer to the same outcome.

Linguists believe individuals who follow the findings of Tversky’s and Kahneman’s experiment, and use positive verbalism like positively slanted speech, are generally perceived in a better light compared to those who do not. Through mindfulness of this type of diction, English speakers can elect to alter the reception of their message. This is because positive language affects cognition.

Untranslatable words

In addition to crafting sentences in the positive form, positive words can trick the brain into cultivating a happier mindset. Labeling situations as “good” as opposed to “not bad” will fundamentally mold how the mind perceives them. Over time, the quality of life is expected to rise, as the brain habitually turns to positive labels.

One way we can expand our capacity for positive emotional experience is by learning words that do not exist in our native languages. These words are deemed “untranslatable” as there is no equivalent for the phenomenon in another language. There are several words pertaining to the emotions and senses in particular that are found in some languages and not others.

For example, according to this list:

  • The informal Hebrew word firgun describes a generosity of spirit and the unselfish joy that something good has happened or might happen to someone else.
  • The Serbian word merak refers to a feeling of bliss and the sense of oneness with the universe that comes from the simplest of pleasures.
  • The Hindi word jijivisha refers to the strong, eternal desire to live and to continue living. It is usually used with regard to a person who loves life and always has intense emotions and desires to live and thrive.

While individuals from other cultures may have comparable experiences to those described above, they lack the labels to categorize the experiences, thereby leaving the feelings un-conceptualized in their reality. To look deeper at the impacts this might have on one’s life, author Tim Lomas strung together a list of 216 untranslatable words and researched their relationships with well-being across cultures.

The paper concludes with a need for further research to solidify a link between a more emotionally encompassing vocabulary and well-being, but it turns out a push toward more positive language is easily attainable.

A recent study in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences found that most languages have more positive words than negative words. The research pulls from the 1969 Pollyanna hypothesis, which states humans have a universal tendency to use positive words more often than negative ones. The new study explored the concept through a more data-driven approach, analyzing billions of words from English, Spanish, French, German, Brazilian Portuguese, Korean, Chinese (Simplified), Russian, Indonesian and Arabic. On average, “happy” words were used more frequently than “sad” ones within all ten languages.[bctt tweet=”A push toward more positive language is easily attainable.” username=”multilingualmag”]

Positive tone in business language

As a result of these findings, along with those of Simoneaux, Tversky and Kahneman, many professionals have become more attentive to the subtleties of positive versus negative tones in order to enhance their communicative potential. This is particularly applicable in the business field as these principles apply to any company, brand, or person looking to persuade.

Managers and authority figures in particular should keep this in mind before addressing their teams. Similarly, email marketing campaigns should use positive statements to increase the likelihood of a sale and reinforce the idea of strong brand quality.

The fact that people respond better to positively slanted messages should also be considered if a company is looking to expand their marketing internationally. Reinforcing positive thinking when forming a localization strategy for an advertising campaign could be the foundation for a well-received brand.

Any translation would ideally be done in such a way as to speak in a more positive tone to the potential consumers in their native languages.

Positive tone in foreign languages

Although this lexical dichotomy is applicable to other languages, the shift from a negative to a positive tone may be more difficult. Take Spanish as an example. In the Spanish language, it is commonplace for sentences to contain double or even triple negatives. These make it nearly impossible to switch the sentence’s tone without completely changing the phrase.

Consider the English sentence, “He didn’t say anything.” This is phrased in a negative construction. The shift to a positive construction is relatively simple: “He said nothing.” The Spanish equivalent would be “No dijo nada,” which literally translates to he didn’t say nothing. Here, there is no easy change to the positive, as removing the double negative in Spanish would render the phrase grammatically incorrect. Instead, the sentence must be reworded to convey a similar meaning. A positive take on the phrase therefore might be “Se quedó en silencio” or he remained silent.

When considering translation and localization where a shift to the positive tone is important in the target language — such as marketing materials or a news story — but where whole phrases must be reworded in order to convey the tone in a grammatically correct manner, transcreation would need to be considered.

Transcreation is the process of translating what is being said in one language into another, but with more freedom to recreate the original text in order to convey the same meaning. So, instead of simply translating and localizing ideas, the person producing the transcreation may make significant changes to the original text. These changes could even include those aforementioned “untranslatable” words to convey whole concepts of the campaign in just a few letters.

In this way, whole marketing strategies could be adapted to convey a product or service to foreign cultures in a positive light, while still staying true to the original brand identity.

Evidently, positive words and phrases yield impressive results across cultures. The power of positive language is expansive and attainable. Localization, transcreation and borrowing “untranslatable words” can help produce a more successful product worldwide. Lexical choice has the potential to teach us how to be happier, how to be more persuasive, and how to sell ourselves effectively.

All it takes is a more mindful manner of speech.

Joelle Resnik
Joelle Resnik is exploring the best avenues to market across cultures while working with the marketing team at Boston-based translation and interpretation agency Language Connections Inc. She has a double major in economics and communication at Boston College, where she intends to solidify her knowledge of developing markets and communication strategy.


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