George Herbert Mead believed the world we live in is mostly in our head, and that language frames not only how we perceive things but what we are able to perceive.
Mead, who influenced many prominent thinkers in communication and sociology today, believed that symbolic naming is the basis of human society, and in fact the essence of being human. It is our ability to name things—as Adam did in the Garden of Eden— which ultimately gives us power over them. And he believed meaning is something that is learned; it is not implicit in the thing itself. Your concept of “dog,” for example, is different from mine, because we have learned different things about dogs, and had different experiences with dogs.
Mead also suggests that once we define a thing as real, it is real in its consequences. This idea should not surprise us as Christian communicators. In fact, the power to frame the world through words is at the core of creation itself. The writer of Hebrews (11:3) tells us, “By faith we understand that the worlds were framed by the Word of God.” And we spend much of our life creating the world we live in through our promises and observations and commands.
There is power in words and symbols, then, and those who work with them have special responsibility. In some ways, it is our job to remake the world, defining for ourselves and other what is real. It is important work, and Mead says we do it better just by being aware of it. What he calls “minding” is the short delay during which we rehearse our next statement, test alternatives, and anticipate others’ responses.
“Take note of this,” James tells us (James 1:18). “Everyone should be quick to listen, slow to speak and slow to become angry.”
That’s because once we say it, it’s real.
NOTE: This is excerpted from “A good word,” a bi-monthly email newsletter I edit at the university. You can subscribe at our new website.