The words you use matter; choose them wisely.
“We have got to start targeting our power users better. The most powerful way for us to do that is to segment our users and then set up triggers that will hit them with the right message to maximize conversion. Looks like we’re gonna have to start poaching more sales ninjas.”
Notice something about the above statement? I mean, other than the fact some version of it can be heard in pretty much every conference room of a traction-focused company.
Aristotle believed that the words and chains of words that we use in framing a problem play a significant role in how we approach problems. 
Let’s take a look at the choice of words here, shall we?
Your users must be game animals, because you’ve marked them as targets. Grab your guns folks, it’s User Season.
Not the worst one by any means, but segmenting by definition means slicing or dividing something into parts, rather than grouping similar things together based on things they have in common. Think about that difference.
Aside from sounding like part of a weapon, their implementation in the marketing world is actually more like a tripwire: we set up the bomb to go off the instant the user (a target, of course) performs an action or a set of actions.
When you’re treating your users like hunting game, you might as well frame your entire professional life through that lens. In a sense, this is even worse, because your employees and colleagues are supposed to be part of your team, someone you can depend on and vice versa, and here you are plotting their captivity (obtained illegally, of course).
Can we all just take a moment to cringe at this one? It’s not specifically militant or violent toward any particular group, but boy, is it both way off-base (can any of these sales/marketing ninjas do a backflip? Didn’t think so) and a lazy form of Newspeak – you can and should think of better qualifying adjectives for what you’re looking for in a sales rep, but that’s too much of a mental load so you just use the word “ninja”.
Aggressive language is everywhere, so much that we as businesses are blind to it.
…I’m sure you can think of countless other examples. Churn (users are churned through your machine of a business and spit out at the end of their LTV). Acquisition (congrats! You just bought a person!). And possibly the creepiest one, re-targeting (don’t bother running and hiding. I’m going to hunt you and put your head on my wall, if it’s the last thing I do).
These expressions are so common, most people utter them without giving them a second thought, and probably without malicious intent. That’s just how we talk about users today – how else would you even say these things?
At Wombat, we made the decision early on to remove most of these terms from our vocabulary. We believe that there’s a huge, untapped advantage to treating your users like people rather than figures at your quarterly report. We believe that it’s not just the right thing to do, but also makes business sense. We understood that if we wanted to lead a meaningful change in the way mobile apps connect with the people using them, we’d have to seriously shift the narrative – and the obvious place to start would be in the words that make up that narrative.
More than just appearances.
If you still think that this is nothing more than just an artificial layer to gloss over the same old attitude, consider what would happen if you made a simple change: instead of referring to directions in relative terms (left, right, up, down), start talking about cardinal directions (West, East, North, South). That is exactly how the Aboriginal community of Pormpuraaw speak, and they use cardinal directions to not only to talk about spatial orientation, but also for things like “There’s an ant on your southeast leg” or “Move the cup to the north northwest a little bit.”  Lera Boroditsky, Associate Professor of Cognitive Science at UCSD, found that one of the implications of speaking this way is their ability to stay constantly oriented, even inside buildings or in new places – an ability once believed to be possessed only by animals.
When Spanish and Japanese speakers talk about an accident happening (for example, someone breaking a vase), they usually use the form “the vase broke” rather than “John broke the vase”. In another interesting study, Lera shows that speakers of these languages were also later less likely to recall who actually broke the vase than their English-speaking counterparts. What mattered was that the vase broke, not who broke it.  You can imagine the implications of this attitude in a workplace that tries to foster a healthy, positive environment focused on growing from mistakes rather than dwelling on them and trying to deflect blame.
There are countless other examples; as a young working mother, ones I personally relate to are the words I want to frame my world in when talking about my equal-partnership household: My husband and I split up a parental leave (I stopped thinking of it as maternity leave once my body healed), my company offers parent-friendly hours (rather than mommy-friendly), and my husband actively parents our children (rather than helps me with child-rearing).
Another example which has recently gone viral is using “weak” versus “strong” language. Articles have asserted that women are more likely to use more qualifiers in an effort not to come off as abrasive, and (unfairly, in my opinion) in many cases does them a disservice and makes them appear unprofessional. In light of everything else we see here, I’d be more concerned about how these women perceive themselves because of constant use of this type of language. If you know something to be true, why would you start it off with a hesitant “I think”? And how does this affect your self-confidence?
The words we speak shape the way we think; this in turn affects how we act and react in the world, and eventually determines the reality we create for ourselves and others.
As a company that helps apps grow, we are strong advocates of seeing the people behind the users and focusing on that. We truly believe this practice, though it sounds soft and tree-hugging, is not diametrically opposed to building a successful, profitable business. Quite the opposite – understanding and respecting the people who use your service or product are key to a steadily growing user-base of people who will actually stick around for the long haul.
At Wombat, we’re not perfect at avoiding this overly aggressive language. New employees have an adjustment period they need to go through to stop talking in one set of terms and start using another, especially if they come from a more cutthroat culture. But it’s part of our employee onboarding process. We make a conscious effort to call each other out when we do it, and we have substitute-words for most terms that now seem pretty natural to us. What happens eventually is that we start seeing the world through a different prism, and even employees that have come to us from the world of adTech (the most notorious for their sniping mentality) look back at their old industry and shudder.
What do you think? We’d love to hear your thoughts and experiences with this in your life.