How Words Shape Actions and People

Words almost always create arbitrary dichotomies.

It’s most evident in academic disciplines.

Where do “philosophy” or “sociology” begin or end?

Look at electronics and computer engineering; the distinction is fluid there too.

The same holds for physics and chemistry as well as pretty much every other discipline.

You can see something similar at play with ordinary words as well, the same ones you use everyday.

Every time you use a word, there’s a chance the meaning it holds for you isn’t the same it holds for the person you’re addressing.

I’ve noticed it whenever someone asks, “Are you working?”

It’s not easy to know how exactly to respond.

The very notion of “work” itself usually means different things to me and the questioner.

I would consider what I was doing as play, but the other person after seeing it would think it was “work”.

So what is work (apart from the transfer of energy via a force along a displacement)?

There’s a tendency to classify anything “hard”, anything that requires exerting yourself, as work.

I’m sure you could find people who’d classify reading this as work.

Though given that there’s no compulsion to do so, they probably wouldn’t be among those reading it.

Perhaps you can think of work as something you’re paid to do.

Or “work” could be some task you’re ordered to do (whether you’re paid for it or not) – something you wouldn’t do left to yourself.

Anyways, you can choose for yourself what a particular thing means to you.

It’s not completely random – you probably wouldn’t define “work” to mean “cold” or “blue”.

But there’s still a lot of space to ‘work’ with (pun intended) because of the fluidity of concepts.

And that gives you freedom to think about these concepts in the way you want to, rather than taking other people’s definitions and adopting them blindly.

What difference does it make?

The way you think about something shapes your attitude to it.

If you think of work as “compulsion” or “things done for money”, your work will reflect that.

If you think of exercising or reading or writing as “work” or “chores” or “necessary evils” you won’t like them.

If your idea of fun encompasses what someone else considers work, or something others consider “necessary evils”, you’ll do different things from them, and you’ll face much less drudgery when you do the same thing.

Somewhat tangentially – something similar happens in conversation, especially with people you’re not too familiar with.

“What’s up?”

The response can range from a single “nothing”, to an hour long monologue.

The standard response is usually nothing, because I assume most people don’t really care and wouldn’t want to know, just as I wouldn’t want to listen to a lengthy account of what’s happening in their lives.

Again, it’s up to you how you interpret a question.


Why are concepts so flexible?

Why do disciplines keep running into each other?

It’s because you can’t create fences between ideas, you can’t isolate them.

I notice that especially when I write.

Most of these essays end up linking to each other.

And a lot of times, I feel like I’ve written something closely related already.

It’s not identical, and the context is different, but the core principle from which it’s derived is the same.

For example, this essay is essentially derived from the idea that there’s a circular relationship between language and thought, which I already wrote about.

You can expand your ability to think by expanding your ability to express thoughts.

You expand your ability to express by expanding your knowledge of language, of concepts and ideas.

And there are two ways to expand your knowledge of language – increase its depth or its width.

That ideas are related to each other, that there are no rigid boundaries between them is about width.

Knowing about more things increases your knowledge of other things you already know about, because the boundary is permeable and there’s always a flow between ideas.

The idea that the meanings of words are flexible within a vast range, that you can create new meanings for yourself, is about depth.

You can take concepts you already know about and think of them in a new way, a way more suited to you.

Like this essay on value/impact is again one way to think of it, perhaps not the first thing you’d expect if you look those words up in a dictionary.


It’s easy to think of “the masses” as stupid or irrational, but that’s misleading.

If you see someone sprinting at top speed at night, you might find it weird.

From your frame of reference their actions might not make sense.

But if you got a call that someone you knew needed you urgently, you might very well be that guy sprinting.

And you might find it weird that others would think of you as weird. Don’t they know it’s an emergency?

The problem is they don’t, because you never see reality as it is – your vision is limited from your frame of reference.

And basic physics would show you that the same object could be at rest or in motion depending on your frame of reference.

What is called the Rashomon effect, from a movie where four witnesses describe a murder in four contradictory ways.

“The Rashomon effect refers to an instance when the same event is described in significantly different (often contradictory) ways by different people who were involved.”

The point being that people are usually “rational”.

Which means that, nearly always – what they’re doing makes perfect sense to them.

If you were that guy (literally), you would not do anything different.

The guy who splurges on a car he can’t afford – he has his reasons for doing that, and at the moment they appear compelling. Sure, he might regret it later – but at that point, it makes sense to him.

But this doesn’t mean that everything everyone does is “right” or “smart”.

(This is not an argument for relativism, that “everything is only one perspective, there’s no right or wrong” – that’s a separate topic for another day).

Only that they think it is.

How does this relate to this essay?

To know why someone’s doing what they’re doing (present actions), you need to know why they think that way.

To know how they’re likely to respond to something (potential future actions), you need to how they think.

Both of these are derived from the way they define the relevant concepts.

Someone who looks at words like “status” or “insult” as “what other people choose to think of me” might not be bothered too much about these things.

But those who view status as “who I am” or an insult as “an attack on me” are probably going to care a lot about status.

Someone for whom food is simply nutrition, or eating merely a necessity for survival will behave very differently from a person who considers good food one of life’s greatest pleasures.

“Work” can be different things to different people – a job, a ‘career’, a service, a passion, a cushy niche where you’re set for life, a torture – anything.

What they think of it will tell you a lot about their approach and attitude to it.


So that’s the power of words.

One – their meanings aren’t as static as they’re made out to be. We have a lot of freedom to carve out meanings.

Two – the meanings you create are defined by, and in turn define your actions. Think about them.

Three – to understand someone’s actions, first accept that he’s rational, and acts based on what he thinks is best for him. Then understand how he defines the concepts underlying those actions.


Rajshree Trivedi

Relatable. Words we speak truly won’t mean the other person listening as exact the same what we want to convey .


I have read thi”words”article,so there the’concept of words’ is different to understanding, But my question is I have problem that I am not so comfert in English language to understand the meaning of many words ,then we do Google. Then I find it is very difficult to read any article or book like we are memorizing facts not learn thought or concept .what should I do?

Sweta Tripathi

Well you should at first read any article or book with a free mind and whatever word you come across try to understand its meaning without using dictionery and at last checkout whether you were correct or not this is a fun approach to improve language . Practice this method for 1 week and then you will see a slight change in your understanding.


How can you so easily intermingle with one’s thought procedure and yet go on with yet another deeper understanding without being aware of the impact you create?


The Presentation of Self – Erving Goffman


hello sir, hope you are doing great. Sorry for the digression, I have read all of your posts regarding UPSC, but I still have some doubts and I don’t know where to ask. Please tell me if I can ask or not, if I can, then where should I so that probability getting answers will increase.

Sanya Singhania



Hello. Can you share your favorite book- list ( non UPSC)

Shobhit Raina

He already has dedicated a seperate section of this website to mention his favourites. Atleast do that little effort before asking him what he has already answered


Thanks for being empathetic.
Much appreciated.


Communication is the key.
You will improve in understanding of anything by loving it.


Chaos does not organize itself into cosmos. We need view points.


Hey Pratyush
Do you know any good microeconomics book to explain the foundation/fundamentals?


Words fall under ‘concepts’ ,which are mental categories for grouping ideas, linguistic meanings, info, images, feelings, experiences etc into cognitive stRuctures. A method our brain evolved over time to make sense of an uncertain environment.
Language and the role it plays in concept formation is a big differentiator between animals and humans.
Perception plays a vital role in how concepts are formed and stored. As u illustrated above that work means different thing to different people. Difference in Perception leads to different conceptualization of the same word, idea or experience.
“Sketching” can be fun for one child but punishment for another. All this because of different life experiences and different Perceptions.
similarly, One may conceptualize the word “steak” as dinner while another may conceptualize it as sacrilege.
SO YES WE HAVE A CHOICE ON HOW WE CARVE MEANING OUT OF WORDS. AND THE MEANING WE CREATE DO DEFINE OUR ACTIONS. like, how one perceives “work out” can affect one’s motivation levels and consistency.

**there is a speech of David Foster Wallace “this is water” on youtube. Where he describes how changing the frame of reference can alter cognitive experiences. Do watch it.

keep writing 🙂