Practical Communication Tools: Distancing Language

distanceUsually when we communicate, we try to get close to the other person, close the gap, and deepen the relationship.  Or not.  Certainly there are times when we don’t necessarily want much of a relationship with the other person, i.e. the UPS guy, the nasty co-worker in the other department, the annoying neighbor.  But for our purposes here let’s put those trivial relationships aside and focus on the relationships that we do want to nurture.  (And actually, by understanding distancing language better, you can use this knowledge to distance yourself even further from those other relationships, if you so choose to do so.)

So what is ‘distancing’ language?  Most people don’t even recognize it when they use it and don’t know the subconscious effect that it has.  When we went to distance ourselves from something, it is because it is undesirable, distasteful, or disquieting to our psyche.  Our language reflects this effort to put distance between ourselves and the unwanted item or avoidable discussion with our words.

When we are close to someone we call them by name or by an endearing term.  When we are mad at or upset with them, we distance ourselves by referring to them with an impersonal pronoun or by their formal title. Your mother can be referred to as “mom”, “mother”, “she”, “Jane”, “Mrs. Smith”, “that woman over there” – do you hear the gap growing and the distance lengthening?  The more impersonal it gets, the more distance is created.

“Mom, you’re a great help” or “My mom is a great help” indicates a close relationship.

“Mother, I can do it myself” or “My mother said that would happen” has tension

“Officer, that woman [while pointing to her] said it was OK” is probably a lie,

when a person refers to their own mother as “that woman”.


Or how about the famous line: “I did not have sexual relations with that woman!”


Pronouns also create closeness or distance, depending on which ones are used.  When we refer directly to ourselves (“I”, “my”, “me”, “myself”) there is no gap.  When indirect references come into play (“that person”, “those people”, “they” – the indistinct, nameless, faceless “they say that…” – who says??)   a gap is created.


“We” are on the same team, but “they” (those losers!) lost the playoffs;

contrasted with “We won!” those same playoffs.

“That’s my girl!” contrasted with “Your daughter…!”


Overheard at the family reunion, “You people are nuts!” – do you think that he’s close to his family?

Contrasted to, “We’re all nuts in this family!” and proud of it – now that’s a close family member.


COMMUNICATION TAKEAWAY:  Listening to the words used in communication can be a tipoff about how a person really feels about a situation, about another person, about the information being conveyed.  Words that put the person in direct contact indicate true engagement – they like you, they like the topic, they like the information.  Distancing language indicates the opposite – and if the person is attempting to create closeness but using distancing language, be wary of what’s genuine and what’s not.  Subconscious distancing from deception is commonly done.

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