2014.07.25 Words matter

What do you think when you read the word "conform"?

In the countries where I have lived, conformity has a negative tinge; we tend to favor feeling free to do things our own way.

What associations are brought out with the word "harmony"?

There is the musical meaning - the opposite of noise; people living in a harmonic relationship are not arguing a lot. It is a positively loaded word.

In adhering to restrictions from doing their own thing - spoken or felt - we say that "people conform to the norms". But in some countries they call this behavior harmonizing.

Would you think about conformity differently if it was called harmonizing? Does "try to fit in" evoke different connotations than "don't rock the boat"?

To me, "conforming" and "don't rock the boat" shoots my associations right over to whistle blowing; the price can be high for society if nobody are willing to speak up when they see something wrong going on. With a strained relationship with conformity, it is easily associated with the worst outcomes.

But we don't like discord, either. If we used harmonizing instead of conforming, the unwanted discord is the opposite of harmony and we might get a skewed picture in the opposite direction, favoring "fitting in" for "creating discord".

Dependent on if our culture supports or discourages a behavior, there are many such differences in how we describe it. (Or more correctly, which meaning we tie to the words, because words in themselves are just another norm.)

We call it deference, they call it reverence. When I think of reverence in a western setting, my mind wanders to a different age - Downton Abbey is probably the most recent example from popular media - because it is a behavior so unlike anything I can think of in my real world.

It makes me a little sad. It would be nice to feel awe and respect, but the people we put on a pedestal as awesome in too many instances prove to be not that respectable. We don't even trust clergy anymore, the representatives for the ultimate reverence, because of too many bad news stories.

Is it the frock or the person wearing the frock that would be revered? Can we respect the office even if we disagree with the office holder? How much we separate the position from the person also depends on how we were raised?

Can we respect even the officeholder that we disagree with? It seems that any discussions have turned into "my way or the highway". Can't we agree to disagree?

Respect itself is one of the other loaded words. Countless are the stories of youth being shot at in the streets because somebody felt that "he didn't respect me" when what they really talk about is showing fear and cowing.

To me, fear has nothing to do with respect. Power couples with fear; personal influence couples with respect. Why would I respect a bully? (I hope that I will not get shot at.)

This little piece is all in English. Imagine that at least one party doesn't speak English as a first language, and you can add translation troubles to the communication pitfalls. What is the likelihood that the other language's words for deference - reverence - sub-servant - estimation - respect will have the exact same connotations as you put into them?

Becoming aware of our preferences often happens the painful way when society around us does things differently than we are used to and we try to discern what it is that is a little off. Often the difference is found in how people show deference and respect? (But don't expect the rest of the world to conform to your expectations when it comes to exactly what these words mean.)