In all of my life, the two questions I get that will always bring a smile to my face are “what is a Behzod?” and “what the heck is rhetoric?” While the former was one I heard a lot during my youth in Texas, the latter seems to come up more and more often in the context of discussing my education. Currently, I am graduate student in the department of Human Centered Design and Engineering at the University of Washington, a program that is housed in the College of Engineering. As such, I am often asked if I came from a computer science or design program, to which I respond neither, and then state how my undergraduate degree is in rhetoric and media studies. Then the question surfaces.
Although we could debate the definition of “rhetoric,” I often explain rhetoric as “the study of how language imposes order on human experience.” That seems complicated enough, so let’s unpack it a bit. In the definition, there are 4 key parts; language, imposition, order, and human experience. Language (in the case of my education) refers mostly to the selection of words used in a given context. In a more modern view, this could expand to visual language (symbols, imagery, etc) but for our purposes we’ll stick to words. Imposes in the definition above points to the notion that words forcefully constrain or influence our perspective in some way, and together with order, suggests an organizing, a hierarchy, and even perhaps a role or job which is given to words to act as a filter or frame. Human experience is rather straightforward, as it puts our lives as the focus of words, but in doing so highlights the subjectivity and range of interpretation that exists, given how no two individuals experience the same life.
The other way I define rhetoric is to turn to my favorite rhetorical scholar, Kenneth Burke, and cite my favorite passage from his book Language as Symbolic Action (emphasis in the original):
Even if any given terminology is a reflection of reality, by its very nature as a terminology it must be a selection of reality; and to this extent it must function also as a deflection of reality.
What this says (both concisely and eloquently) is that words frame and structure how we live, that language is very much the actor with agency in the scenes of our lives, and that ultimately, our words and conversations are reflections of our perceptions, our philosophies, and our biases. Which brings me to the key point of this post: to think positively, speak positively.
This has a number of manifestations, but I’m going to focus on the biggest one that I encounter, the use of the word “obstacle.” There are dozens of occurrences each day that are often labeled as “interruptions,” “problems,” or “obstacles,” and while these experiences likely divert the flow of attention and work that was previously taking place, when we talk about them using language with negative connotations, we will view them negatively. Instead of doing that, we could call them “opportunities,” a term that invokes a different set of ideas and emotions. By looking at a situation as an opportunity, we can see the chance to strengthen our relationships with others, learn or grow in a new way, stretch our body (or our mind), or perhaps just help someone that needed it. In doing so, we are effectively selecting positive aspects of the diversion and deflecting the negative ones (in terms of Burke’s example).
One of the ways that I try to use this type of positive framing in my classroom is asking students what they think was done well in a given example, and what they think could have been done better? By creating a binary of “things done well” and “things that could have been done better” I’m acknowledging the work that went into the example (I teach a writing class for engineering students) without labeling it as “bad” or “poor.” I do this because I am a firm believer that everything and everyone has something to teach me, and if I start with that as my foundational premise, I will find value in everything I experience. In the classroom, I see this permeate into the students language as the quarter progresses, with the students often beginning critiques of examples with “x was a good start, but I would have liked to see more of y.”
I would encourage you to try this small change in the way you speak, as well as thinking about what other avenues you can try and employ positive language, and then see how it influences the way you experience the world and interact with others. In closing, I need to give thanks to my late mentor Nacho Cordova for always encouraging me to speak specifically and see positively, for without him I would not experience the world in the way that I do today.