Seeing the Hidden Meaning Within Our Words

Have you ever thought about the words you use when you communicate? Have you ever stopped to think about the context within which you use those words and whether they convey meaning beyond your initial intent? Have you thought about the implicit bias embedded in common phrases and comments frequently used?

The words we choose convey meaning beyond a dictionary definition.

I recently visited a friend’s house on a trip back home. It was a great mini-reunion. We have been friends for over thirty years, and we hadn’t seen each other in several, so we had a lot of catching up to do. Her husband is an amazing cook, so while he worked the kitchen, we enjoyed catching up over a glass of wine. I glanced at the refrigerator, and I saw the tell-tale proud parent monikers – magnets and school papers. I glanced at the one with A+ 100% written in large bold letters across the top. A perfect spelling test. The A+ 100% is what caught my eye, but it was the teacher’s comment that struck me.

Photo by Surendran MP on Unsplash

Underneath the grade was the comment “Beautiful Handwriting.” As a sociologist and businesswoman that knows all too well the gendered nature of language descriptors and the long-term ramifications, I took notice. I couldn’t help but turn to my friend and say…

“I just have to tell you that you need to watch the comments that are coming back from this teacher and others. Research shows that girls tend to be praised for being nice, neat, quiet, communal, rule-followers, while boys are praised for effort, accomplishments, and achievements. This may be a one-time event, but if it isn’t, you should address it with your daughter for sure and maybe the teacher. Let your daughter know that you are proud of the effort she took to learn all the words correctly and to top it off, she wrote in a way that easily conveyed her knowledge (legible handwriting).”


Ok, I can hear it now …

“Are you kidding me? Is this person really getting worked up over a simple comment like ‘Beautiful Handwriting’ on a spelling test?”

I get it. If it is a one-off, a onetime incident, then I agree, it is ‘no big deal.’ But I am trained to look for patterns that have systemic consequences. One simple comment on one spelling test is inconsequential, but if that comment is representative of a larger trend, then we have something that warrants attention. Trends in communication and in society create patterns in outcomes. And we can measure and quantify those patterns, correlations, and outcomes.

My friend’s daughter did have perfect penmanship for a six-year-old. I agree with the teacher. But I challenge you to think outside the box.

Photo by Johannes Plenio on Unsplash

Do you think that “Beautiful handwriting” is a common comment on papers? Do you think the teacher would have put that same comment on a boy’s paper in the class? What other comments could a teacher put on a perfect spelling test?

Think about it this way, if you have a child that does well on a test or an assignment, what do you want praised? Why?

In a capitalistic society like ours, meritocratic ideals permeate our culture. We learn from an early age that achievement and success is valued, praised, and pays dividends. We learn through a systemic process of socialization in major institutions, like school, that if we work hard, we will be rewarded with praise and typically good grades. This same ideology correlates with our culture’s love of individualism—success and failure are tied to the actions of the individual. If we are successful, it is because we worked hard; if we aren’t successful, it is because we didn’t work hard enough—we didn’t show enough resilience, persistence, or grit.

Back to my friend’s daughter’s school paper…the words chosen matter.

Photo by Element5 Digital on Unsplash

The words chosen convey meaning. The words “beautiful handwriting” tells the student what is valued by the teacher. They tell the student what she needs to focus on to continue to get praise in the future. Would any different meaning be conveyed if the teacher had written “Great Job! I am proud of your effort!”? Would this leave the student with a different message? The meaning of words and the context in which they are spoken or written have real impact.

It is time to shyft the status quo and build social awareness of ways the words we choose matter.


By Kristin Heck Sajadi, Founder and CEO at Shyft Strategies, LLC Sajadi is a sociologist, entrepreneur and developer of the Shyft5 TM program – helping individuals and organizations build social awareness as a business asset to shyft the status quo.

Shyft5 TM program tackles challenges and builds awareness—the benchmark for effective communication, productive interaction, and thriving cultures in today’s organizations.

At Shyft Strategies, we help you uncover the obstacles and barriers preventing you from reaching your goals. We help you navigate today’s new business and human capital reality. The first step to moving forward is increasing awareness. Awareness isn’t just learning a new fact or statistic. It is connecting the dots between what is and why, so that we can consciously and cognitively shyft to what can be and how.