How We Talk About Fear Matters

5 min read

Lately, there seems to be plenty to fear in the world: threats of war, political divisiveness, mass shootings. But it turns out that how we talk about what we fear might actually moderate our reactions, offering clues to how we are socially and culturally conditioned to experience that emotion.

A fearful history

The word fear has a long history in English. In Anglo-Saxon times, “fær,”as it was written, primarily referred to impending peril or sudden danger. But the root of the word dates a lot farther back than English, all the way to a much more ancient root, pēr, from a hypothesized language known as Indo-European that existed about 6,000 years ago. it is believed that this root meant “to pass through or travel,” suggesting that fear ultimately developed from the sense of a sudden (frightening) experience you passed through.

The perseverance of this word over time certainly suggests it usefully describes a longstanding human emotion, but research suggests how different language speakers conceptualize fear is less consistent than we might expect.

Is fear universally negative?

We might assume that basic emotion words like “love” or “fear” translate similarly across languages, but whether these emotions are viewed positively or negatively (a language’s “emotion semantics”) can show cultural variation based on what people have learned to associate with those words.

Some research has examined how this happens by looking at what is called colexification patterns across languages. Colexification occurs when a language has more than one concept associated with a word, typically arising from how and in what contexts people use those words.

For instance, in English, “anxious” is often used to mean “worried” (as in “I am anxious about the test”) but also to mean “eager,” as in “I am anxious to see that new movie.” Thus, it colexifies those two meanings. However, in Dargwa (a language spoken in Dagestan), the word which means “anxious” can’t mean “eager” but can be used to mean “regret.”

This suggests that many English speakers conflate anxiety and eagerness in a way not experienced by Dargwa speakers – and, since being eager is not always a bad thing, they may not view anxiety as negatively as Dargwa speakers.

A fearful pattern?

In looking at such patterns across the major language families (languages related historically), researchers found that the word “fear” was often associated with anxiety, envy and grief in Indo-European languages (e.g., the family including English). But in Austronesian languages (languages spoken in the Indonesian archipelago such as Malay, Tagalog, Balinese and Javanese), “fear” more often was associated with just the concept of surprise.

In other words, in languages that associate the concept of fear with an emotion like “surprise” rather than a more negative emotion like “grief, it may moderate how speakers perceive that emotion toward a less negative sense.

The foreign language effect

Another fascinating finding is that hearing something in your native language seems to make you experience emotions like fear more intensely than hearing about it in a foreign language. This seems to be related to a richer encoding of experience in your native language than when you learn a second language and/or that there is an increase in psychological distance to an event when a non-native language is used.

This emotional distancing effect of a foreign language has long been noted – in fact, Freud wrote of bilingual patients shifting to their non-native language to describe anxiety inducing topics. However, this so-called “linguistic detachment” associated with using a foreign language has only recently been empirically studied.

In a 2018 study, researchers asked participants to complete a verbal fear-conditioning experiment in either their native or a foreign language to explore whether simply changing language reduced emotional reactivity, as measured by pupil dilation and electrodermal response (e.g., sweat gland activity).

In the fear-conditioning condition, participants were told they might receive a mild electric shock when certain colored squares appeared on the screen while they were saying numbers aloud (no actual shock was delivered).


Fearful in the face of a threat


The study showed that, regardless of the language used in the interactions, hearing the possibility of a threat increased participant’s psychophysical response compared to non-threat conditions. However, both pupil dilation and skin conductance activity increased to a greater degree when participants heard the threat in their native language.

As well, initial psychophysical response decreased more rapidly when a foreign language was used. All of this suggests that hearing a threat in a foreign language may indeed decrease a person’s fear-conditioned reaction.

Changing our perception of fear

The fact that how we talk about fear changes how we react to it certainly suggests there may be some value to trying to disrupt the language or associated meanings we use when talking about what frightens us. As well, some work (Argaman 2010) has suggested that fear increases the tendency for self-focused language such as the use of “I” and “we” pronouns and a greater tendency to put emotions into words by using affect-language (e.g., happy, sad, scared).

All of this may indicate that talking about what one is experiencing in fear-inducing situations helps to regulate that emotion – as might gaining distance from fearful situations by using a second language, if available. As well, how our language categorizes an emotion (in relation to other emotion concepts) seems to impact whether we perceive those emotions negatively or positively.

Unfortunately, there has not been a lot of research on clinical applications for language and emotion linkages, but it does tell us that fear is something that can be altered by cultural and linguistic experience, opening the door to potential avenues to change how we talk about and react to it. Perhaps Roosevelt was right when he infamously said “The only thing we have to fear is fear itself.”

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