On words, and perceptions of reality


I have been thinking a lot lately about how words shape reality.

It is true of course in my writing. As I immerse myself in the third draft of my novel I am increasingly aware of being engaged in a complex choreography of choosing just the right words to draw the reader along with the story I want them to believe.

I can also see it in Arthur’s emerging language – the distinctions and categorisations he is now able to make with his expanding vocabulary. It’s hard to be sure, but it feels like his world is expanding as his words do. There are not just birds any more, but seagulls and pigeons, peacocks and penguins. He is starting to recognise and label emotions too. To articulate happiness, fear and love. And – through those emotions perhaps – he is beginning to make judgements.

As adults, our judgements are inherent in so much of the language we use everyday, from ‘pretty’ girls to ‘naughty’ boys, from well meaning labels that can inadvertently limit someone’s concept of what they might be capable of to jokey insults laden with prejudice that can exclude whole groups of people on a whim.

That really bothers me, that labelling. But that’s a post for another time.

I think what’s unnerving me most at the moment is how words can be used to twist an otherwise secure reality into something else. I have realised that the protagonist in my novel is the victim of narcissistic abuse. Her experience is rooted to an extent in my own, and that of some of my closest friends. If you haven’t (and I hope you haven’t) fallen under the spell of a narcissist, their modus operandus is to make themselves invaluable to a person and then gradually undermine them and chip away at their self-esteem until their victim has no idea what is right or true any more. Almost all of this they do with words.

It is incredible how mere words, used judiciously, can plant seeds of doubt that cause the things you thought you knew to be true to collapse before your eyes. I don’t know if you’ve been watching Broadchurch, but watching Joe Miller’s defence lawyer rewrite history – to the extent that even viewers who had seen what had actually happened began to doubt whether it had – was one of the most terrifying things I’ve ever seen on TV.

An old friend, one of the loveliest people I’ve ever known, is going through something akin to this currently. He is at risk of losing access to his children entirely unless he can convince the courts that his words are worth more than those of his estranged wife, that his truth is more valid than hers.

Most of us, I hope, will not be so calculated in the way we use words to manipulate reality. Not unless the reality we are weaving is accepted to be fictional by all concerned. But I wonder how conscious we are about the need to speak the truth – and if we’re not, to be honest about how what we say is clouded by opinion.

It is easy to forget sometimes, whilst simply recounting an event or expressing a point of view, that every single word we choose – consciously or otherwise – will alter the message we are communicating.

As a writer the limitless possibilities are undeniably exciting. But as a human being – and especially as a parent – I find it just a teensy bit scary. The potential for getting it wrong is sometimes almost enough to make me not want to say anything at all.


But we most definitely need to choose our words carefully, in what we write and what we say. Who knows whose perception of reality might be depending on it?




6 thoughts on “On words, and perceptions of reality

  1. mummyshambles

    Words are so powerful, people don’t realise the effects of their words on others. Maybe if they did, they would think before they speak, or post messages.
    Good post, very thought provoking. X

  2. thenthefunbegan

    Really interesting post Sophie – and I couldn’t agree more – I think that the expression ‘sticks and stones can break my bones but words can never hurt me’ is a brave statement but not necessarily true. I note that in recent years domestic abuse (as a category used by the police and social services) has come to include both physical violence and ’emotional’ abuse – the latter of which is very much a destructive force built from words. Words can be so powerful for both good (oratory – ‘I have a dream…’) and bad. It is a minefield when you put it in the context of your children making their way through school and puberty and all the social interactions and relationships they will encounter along the way. X #theprompt

  3. Nicola Young

    Very thought provoking. My eldest is coming to her teenage years and she is getting increasingly sensitive about what is said to her. You know how they tend to take everything the wrong way, but you have to be so careful because it is such a delicate time for her, when she is starting to become the grown up she will eventually be.

  4. maddy@writingbubble

    Brilliant post Sophie! One I find really hard to comment properly on though, because as I read it I kept thinking of more things I wanted discuss with you. It’s the sort of post that really needs a coffee and a chat! The whole ‘manipulation of reality’ thing is scary especially as our brains can do it without us even meaning to: ‘eye-witness’ reports of a crime can be surprisingly unreliable! Oh, and I want to watch Broadchurch even more now! xx

  5. Sara (@mumturnedmom)

    Great post Sophie. Like Maddy, I think my comment could turn into a post if I’m not careful, definitely a chat over a coffee one! Words have incredible power to manipulate, positively and negatively and our perception of any given reality can be influenced by so many factors. And, we have the ability to influence others as well, which is slightly terrifying in the context of our children… Thank you so much for sharing with #ThePrompt x

  6. Mummy Tries

    I love your Prompt posts Sophie, even if they do require more brain power to digest than I’m often capable of! I was nodding along here.

    Firstly the Broadchurch finale, OMG! Secondly your poor friend, really hope he gets his kids back. As for your protagonist, she sounds so damaged, which is the unfortunate reality for a lot of women who have suffered abusive relationships.

    As for the kids, I’m learning the hard way that what’s often needed in my house is for me to say nothing and walk out of the room. It’s so hard though! Funnily enough my hubby and I were discussing this earlier. There’s a lot to be said for knowing when to keep schtum (not that I’m an expert at all, as I said I’m still learning) xx


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