Language used to describe people can encourage empathy—or trigger harmful stereotypes.
Organizations that help people in need often describe the people they serve using words that highlight that need: People living in poverty, for example, are labeled as “poor,” “marginalized” and “vulnerable.” An American Aspirations analysis of language used by 40 nonprofit organizations showed that these and other negative adjectives are often used to describe people. While they might be technically accurate, psychological research shows they hurt the cause more than help it.
Cognitive psychology tells us that the first thing you say about a person sets off a chain reaction of ideas called “associations” in which one thought, image or idea is followed by another that the listener’s mind connects to it. People’s judgments and decisions about a topic begin flowing from the very first word you say, so it’s important to start out on the right foot.
Using negative adjectives such as “poor” to describe people can activate negative associations and ideas about those people, which can make your audience less motivated to help them. For instance, in a study by the World Values Survey, 6 in 10 Americans associated the word “poor” with the word “lazy.”
That language feeds into a common stereotype of people in poverty. It can undermine public support for programs designed to fight poverty, because some people are less inclined to help those they think aren’t trying to help themselves. Labels that categorize people in negative ways can create distance rather than connection.
What’s more, in other surveys more than 8 out of 10 Americans identified themselves as “middle class.” So even people whose incomes fall below the poverty line don’t consider themselves as “poor.” Language like this even alienates those whom it is meant to describe.
Instead of labeling people in need with negative words, it’s better to use language that creates positive associations. Instead of “poor” or “marginalized,” try “hardworking” or “struggling to provide for their families.” This language better reflects the realities, hopes and values of people fighting to get out of poverty.
Importantly, others can see their own aspirations reflected in this positive language; highlighting shared hopes and values creates common ground and encourages people to help. In narrative research and development commissioned by the Ford Foundation, language like this encouraged 7 out of 10 Americans to support government anti-poverty programs.
American Aspirations explores ways to create common ground through language that speaks to shared hopes and values. In a national survey, more than 2,000 people rated a list of personal values based on how important each value was to them. As the chart below shows, “hardworking,” “responsible,” “loyal” and “family-oriented” ranked at the top of the list. Approximately 7 out of 10 people said each of these is “extremely important” to the way they want to be as people.
In focus group conversations with Americans across the country, we asked participants how they would describe what their fellow Americans are like. In addition to some of the adjectives in the chart above, people of many different backgrounds and political beliefs suggested words such as “resilient,” “ambitious” and “caring.” These words represent common ground characteristics that resonate with a wide range of Americans.
Here’s an example of how to put this into practice: In 2015, one in seven Americans was receiving assistance through the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), known informally as food stamps. At one point or another, many Americans from all different socioeconomic backgrounds and walks of life have benefited from government tools and programs. To build support for this cause, remind audiences that the people who use these programs share their values. Like them, SNAP recipients are hardworking people just trying to make ends meet. This creates common ground and taps into the values your audience most admires and aspires to.
Choosing the right words can inspire empathy and reduce what psychologists call “social distance” between different groups of people. When your heart is in the right place, don’t let the wrong words get in the way.