Language wars, simple stories and eternal happiness

Over the Christmas period, I listened to a BBC podcast that made me realise once again just how powerful and subtle language can be.

They were talking about the press coverage of migrants fleeing the Syrian conflict. The presenter was joined by a media commentator who also writes for the Daily Mail, and by the author of a report that says coverage has focused too much on fear of migration and security concerns.

But let’s stop there.

I was immediately struck by the language used. For ‘migration’ has now almost completely replaced the word ‘immigration’.

I can still see my geography teacher all those years ago walking menacingly around the classroom with his cane (this was back in the days of corporal punishment) just waiting to catch somebody out.

But he never caught me out. I knew that immigration was into the country, emigration was out of the country, and migration was within the country.

Except it’s not, any more. Migration is now a catch-all term to describe the movement of people in virtually any direction, whether they have the required travel papers or not.

The reason is quite simple: immigration has become a loaded word, and is verging on the toxic. You can’t use it without dragging some heavy cultural baggage into the conversation.

So just as issue has replaced problem, migration has replaced immigration.

But back to the podcast. The report’s author made her case eloquently and at some length, at which point the presenter asked the media commentator what he thought of her argument.

“Mostly complete rubbish,” he said without a moment’s hesitation.

And so the battle lines were drawn for a heated debate in which neither saw the other’s point of view. She said there was no such thing as ‘illegals’ because people weren’t illegal. He said it was tabloid shorthand for ‘illegal immigrants’ (he didn’t use the word migrant, interestingly), but she still disputed the term.

When the presenter asked her if she accepted that some migration was illegal, she conceded the point. But moved quickly on to thicker ice, and continued her assault.

In the end, neither won the debate, and neither changed their mind. But it was a fascinating example of terminology and ideology.

Lesson 1: Language matters, as it helps you frame the debate. Viewpoint matters, as it dictates how you project yourself.

Yule never walk alone

The second story is actually related to the first, as it again focuses on migration. But this time the setting was Christmas lunch.

Now I know they say you should never discuss sex, politics or religion, but on Christmas Day we managed to cover all three between the prawn cocktail and plum pudding.

At one point, the debate moved inevitably to the EU, and this time to legal immigration (or migration – take your pick) from east to west.

I’d recently read an article that said there were 850,000 Poles now in the UK, most of whom had come since the expansion of the European Union in 2004. If you add to that number the people who’ve come from other former Eastern-bloc countries, you’re probably looking at 1.5 million. 

That inevitably affects public services, I said. Hospitals, schools, doctors, dentists. Even the number of cars on the road and people on the Tube. To pretend otherwise would be to deny reality. I wasn’t saying it was a good or bad thing, but simply pointing out that it’s unprecedented and unplanned-for.

“I like Poles,” said one person round the table.

I stared in disbelief, and with a sudden sense of unease. Was I being cast in the role of Nigel Farage or Marine Le Pen? I backtracked, saying that I wasn’t talking about Poles, but about numbers. We could be talking about Martians. 

But the debate was derailed.

Why? Because simple trumps complicated. When I said that most new arrivals were in their 20s but most of those departing the UK were of retirement age, somebody else said, “That’s perfect. We ship out all our old people, and get young people in to contribute to the system.”

“And when those young people are old in 40 years’ time? Who pays their pensions?” said somebody else. “Aren’t you just kicking the can down the road?”

“I still like Poles”, said the first person.

Lesson 2: people like a simple story. Don’t complicate yours.

Shiny happy people

The third lesson is one that I’m still learning. And it comes courtesy of a friend whom I visited just before Christmas.

Scanning the shelves in his living room, I spotted a book that immediately caught my attention. The Happiness Trap, it was called. The subheading was ‘Stop struggling and start living’.

“That looks interesting,” I said.

“Oh yeah,” he replied, “a friend of mine read it and now he’s buying it for everybody. He said it changed his life and he wants all his friends to have it.”

He hadn’t read it, he said. Slightly glumly, I thought, so maybe he’d fallen into the trap.

I was intrigued, and later downloaded a sample of the e-book. I was so hooked I subsequently purchased the full title.

As a serial self-helper, I can tell you that it’s absolutely compelling. Its central premise is that all other self-help books having actually been making people miserable over the years by forcing them to chase happiness. Forcing them to banish negative thoughts and feelings, and think themselves happy.

True happiness, it says, comes from just acknowledging those negative thoughts and making space for them. Perhaps even from naming them (“Aha. This is the ‘I’m a failure’ thought.”) and seeing what happens.

One exercise gets you to take a negative thought and sing it to the tune of Happy Birthday. You’d be surprised how quickly it defuses that thought and makes it sound ridiculous.

As I read on, I realised that all of this isn’t just applicable to our personal lives. It’s equally true of all our marketing efforts.

My website isn’t good enough/my campaign is full of flaws/they’ll know I’m a fake/the competition does this way better/I’ll never succeed in a crowded market place/my copy will never be perfect.

Those are just some of the things that we all say to ourselves now and then. And chasing those thoughts away just make them come back boomerang-style. It’s better simply to live with the uncertainty, accept that nothing’s ever perfect and move on to the next project.

Lesson 3: stop chasing happiness – aka perfection. Good enough is good enough.

Happy New Year (but not a trappy one).