How Words Shape Your Family Culture


In my last few blog posts I have been writing about practices. I’ve talked about both value practices and culture practices.

Practices, the things your family does and says in the everyday, are behaviors that convert ideas to actions to create and maintain culture.

These practices fall into two categories:  

Internal – What takes place within your family. 

External – How your family interacts with outsiders.

Let’s take a moment to compare practice within organizations and families.

In an organization, practices include, job titles, how work is organized, recruitment, training and development; performance management; internal communications; and technology. The external practices include how you relate to customers, suppliers, and vendors plus the products and services that you offer.

Practices within a family include the routines and rhythms of your home. How you will operate in any given day or situation. How you will use technology. How you will relate to one another  which includes the language we use.

Words matter in the culture building process.

We know from the Bible that “Death and life are in the power of the tongue” (Prov. 18:21). Words have the ability to produce positive or negative consequences (v. 20). They have the power to give life through encouragement and honesty or to crush and kill through lies and gossip.

Both the language you choose to use and choose not to use impacts your family culture. <<Click to Tweet

  • Language informs the way we think and interact with the world. When you say something over and over again you will eventually believe it and your actions will follow. This includes daily sentiments, conversations and values you share with your spouse and children. Not only that but, what we say, to a considerable degree, determines what others think, and what therefore act.  

An example of this is Horst Schulze of Ritz-Carlton, shaped his employee’s decorum and conduct with the phrase “We’re ladies and gentlemen serving ladies and gentlemen.” And Rudy Giuliani, when he was working to build a better New York, said that “People created the problem so people can fix it,”.

The level of service is elevated at the Ritz-Carlton because it’s employees are reminded regularly that just because they have service jobs does not mean that they are less than the people they serve. In New York people were empowered because of simple words that reassured them they could fix the problems they were facing.

These phrases weren’t said just once or twice but over and over again.

  • Language also fosters a sense of unity and membership. We see this in business and in organizations as growing numbers of people are working remotely. A company's unique dialect, acronyms, jargon, slang, inside jokes, and abbreviations in their communication that creates community and builds culture not proximity.

Sometimes when my husband comes home from work and tell me about his day I feel like he is speaking a different language simple because I am not in the finance field. He using acronyms for programs they use and reports they run that I can’t quite remember even after all these years. When he talks with colleagues they get it, no explanations needed.

On the other hand my kids know exactly what I mean when I refer to “the rules” because together we read The Essential 55 by Ron Clark, which covers basic everyday etiquette rules we are practicing. When I ask the kids if they want to snuggle in the evening they know it means, “Do you want to come into my room and read a book together before bed?” Also, obscure references to Dr. Who are like an inside joke to us because we binge watched the first 8 seasons of the show together. Certain words and phrases connect us.

Here are some examples of words that shape people in the workplace, in family, and personally:


I read about one company that doesn’t allow their employees to say “I’m sorry”. They felt that skipping over sorries forced them to seek solutions faster. Rather than apologizing for being late with a report or miscommunicating a client request, they would go straight to, “How can I fix this?”. This kind of language turned problems into progress. Over time this language fostered critical thinking, problem-solving, and ownership of our work.


We’ve mentioned this example before: When our family hosts a connect group As we talk about, plan and prepare for the evening, we say, “we host” vs. “Mommy and Daddy hosts.”

We are also ridding our home of the following:

“I deserve ____________.”                                                                                                      “That’s dumb! I wouldn’t have done that.”

We are also working on avoiding “Why?” questions. “Why” questions put a person on the defensive and encourage intimidating analytical thinking.


Jess Lively, a popular podcaster, says she is careful not to “should” all over herself. Should creates an expectation that implies punishment or that she should feel bad about herself if she doesn't do it. Expressions like, “I should go for a run, or I should eat a salad.” are better said as, “I have a choice to go for a run”, or “I want to eat a salad”. It’s a subtle shift that eliminates guilt and disapproval for ourselves. You can find that episode here.

You can begin to figure out what word you want you use in your home with these simple questions.

  • Reflect on your childhood, what are the expressions that made you feel bad? What are the expressions that encouraged you and brought you to life?

  • Write down the legacy phrases that float through your family. Are they healthy? Do they need erasing?

  • Write down the various phrases and expressions you use regularly. Look them over, and ask yourself what feelings do they invoke? What behaviors do you think your family members will take on when they hear them?

Communication is a skill and like most things it take practice to do it well.

The language you use will most certainly change due to trial and error. Carl and I are still working what language is acceptable and what is not. The more we learn about the power of words and hear what does and doesn’t work for others the easier it will be to refine our the words we will and will not use.


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