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The Beauty – and the Danger – of Woo-Woo


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This post was triggered by a post written by my friend and soul-sister, Jenny Bones. It has become one of those topics that started burning a hole in my pocket to the point that I couldn’t get to anything else until I took it out.

Jenny’s post What’s Wrong With a Little Woo? (at her new website, an exciting change of direction for her) hit a nerve with me.

I am, among other things, an Organization Development (OD) consultant. And even though that sounds mighty Proper and Official, people in OD (and HR and Training and Development, and all the associated tracks) are sometimes looked down upon by The Corporate World as being, well, woo-woo. Touchy-feely. We deal with feelings. And soft skills. (Among other things.) Sometimes the work we do isn’t perceived as being “closest to the dollar” (or anywhere near it, except as an expense). Dealing with and overcoming this perception is not an unusual topic at professional meetings and trainings.

So I wasn’t surprised when I went to a workshop last fall called Become an Inspiring Speaker (which was FABULOUS) that there was a lot of self-deprecating humor among participants and presenters about being perceived as being woo-woo. What did surprise me was that when someone would ask, “What does that mean?” or challenge the use of the term, people would kind of hem and haw and change the subject.

“Woo-woo” is one of those terms that everyone kind of knows the definition of.

“Woo-woo” is one of those slang terms that everyone kind of knows the definition of, but here are a couple of official definitions (from the Internet, which is never wrong):

Wiktionary.org says: “It has been suggested that “woo woo” is intended to imitate the eerie background music of sci-fi/horror films and television shows, however the exact origin is uncertain.” It gives the definition as: “(Decribing) A person readily accepting supernatural, paranormal, occult, or pseudoscientific phenomena, or emotion-based beliefs and explanations.”

The Skeptic’s Dictionary says, “When used by skeptics, woo-woo is a derogatory and dismissive term used to refer to beliefs one considers nonsense or to a person who holds such beliefs… But mostly the term is used for its emotive content and is an emotive synonym for such terms as nonsense, irrational, nutter, nut, or crazy.”

Nice, huh? The problem is, what is considered nonsense is relative. It can be applied to anything that isn’t mainstream, left-brain and “close to the dollar.”

“Be Who You Be”

In Jenny’s post, she takes a stand that you should “be who you be” and not be afraid of being woo-woo if that’s who you are. I agree! She went on to say,

“When we edit ourselves and our marketing message in the hopes we’ll attract a larger audience we risk losing everything. More often than not, we end up missing our target completely.”

With that I agree… and I disagree. Here’s why.

I agree that we should represent ourselves authentically and not try to convince others that we are something we are not. Or that we are not something we are. We can only connect with our Right People by letting ourselves shine.

But And I also believe that we should carefully select the language we use and be wary of using terms that have negative baggage – not only because it can scare new Right People away, but also because it reinforces the monster voices in our heads that call us names. It makes it more difficult to fully embrace and describe with pride Who We Are and What We Bring to the Work We Do.

Simply put, it’s the term woo-woo that bothers me.

It’s the term “woo-woo” that bothers me.

So I left a comment on Jenny’s blog and told a story about a group of consultants and coaches with whom I meet regularly. At one of our meetings, where we were working on ideas for promoting our businesses, we kept using the term “woo-woo” in a self-demeaning way. So we had a reframing exercise to see if we could shift the way we thought of the term, and of ourselves. And in the process we came up with a lot of very useful terms to use instead of “woo-woo.”

It was a very powerful exercise, as it helped us to take more pride and ownership in what we do as well as giving us new language to use with people who hunger for more than black-and-white, either-or, numbers-driven, left brain solutions.

I should have anticipated it, but several people replied to my comment asking about what some of those words were.

So I went back to my cohorts and asked if they minded if I wrote about this. Their support was unanimous, and one responded with, “I’m totally in support of it, and, in fact, would love it if you DID mention us — not names and details, but that you are a member of a fabulous group of intuitively-oriented goddesses with our feet firmly on the ground.

I couldn’t have put it better myself! So here we go with more about the reframing exercise:

We brainstormed as many synonyms as we could for “woo-woo.”  Not necessarily concrete definitions, but any term that came to mind that we associated with “woo-woo.” A volunteer record-keeper wrote them down in a word cloud as fast as we blurted them out.

At first they were mostly words that are negative – or might be perceived as negative by The Corporate World – including words like “unrealistic,” “joke,” “scary,” “mysterious,” “unprovable,” “touchy-feely,” “girlie,” “psychic,” “dangerous,” “evil,” “witch,” and “wimpy.”

But even before we stopped to intentionally redirect ourselves to listing more “positive” terms, those terms started tumbling out until we had more positive terms than negative terms. Overflowing positive terms!

Then we went back through the word cloud and circled those positive terms to help them stand out. They include “curious,” “power,” “quantum physics,” “universal,” “authentic,” “honest,” “real,” “expansive, “right brain,” “passion,” “joy,” “present,” “intercultural,” “love,” “light,” and “connection.” Those are just a few; a copy of the actual page is below:

What a difference! By the end of ten minutes we had shifted the language we were using and the way we were presenting ourselves, and we pledged to only use the positive terms when marketing ourselves going forward.

What’s my point?

The world includes – must include – both yin and yang. We have both a left brain and a right brain.

There are a lot of people in The Corporate World, as well as small businesses, solopreneurs, and individuals, who want and need what we bring. We can authentically speak to them in languages they can understand.

So, embrace who you are and what you bring to your work! That enthusiasm is contagious! As Jenny said, “You are the only thing that’s unique about your business. Market it. Celebrate it. Believe in it.”

Use language that celebrates who you are and what you bring to your work. If that includes the term “woo-woo,” Yay You! But if using that term is just an excuse to kick yourself in the shins or justify your lack of success because They see you as “woo-woo,” then Not-Yay.

If the rebel in you wants to proudly wear the badge of Woo-Woo, go for it! But think carefully about whether or not it is an excuse to have your “No One Will Ever Buy From Me” cake and eat it too.

Re-framing can be a powerful exercise for getting unstuck and looking at something in a new way. Language is important – and powerful.

Take it from a “fabulous group of intuitively-oriented goddesses with our feet firmly on the ground.”

Do you truly embrace what you do and invite others to share in it? How have you used a re-framing exercise to change how you look at things? Please leave a comment!

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16 Responses to The Beauty – and the Danger – of Woo-Woo

  1. Claire March 9, 2011 at 10:05 am #

    Susan,
    Those are all great words, but none is an actual synonym for woo-woo. I think they describe another phrase that could be useful: emotional intelligence. This includes “self-awareness, altruism, personal motivation, empathy, and the ability to love and be loved by friends, partners, and family members” (from the Amazon review of Daniel Goleman’s book). I don’t know how far the concept has made it in the corporate world, but I think there’s a need for it.

  2. Jenny March 9, 2011 at 10:07 am #

    Susan, I’m both honored and blown away by this great post. I’m all giggly at the conversation this issue has spurred.

    You make an excellent point about the baggage we carry around with relation to words: our frightened egos will use words to self-sabotage and demean ourselves. Words are really all the ego has.

    But when we go beneath the surface, sometimes it’s totally surprising and unexpected the ideas that spring forth from a single word. Especially a word we previously thought to be totally negative in nature.

    Thank you sister!

  3. Peggie March 9, 2011 at 10:15 am #

    You’re right. back in my corporate days, I wasn’t so keen on people so “far from the dollar.”
    Now that I’ve found my way, with feet on the ground, I know how important words are.
    We are what we speak.
    And as Mike Dooley of tut fame says, “Words become things” so our meaning and tone with any word affects our outcomes. Any word is, of itself, arbitrary, just a mish-mash of sounds made from letters that we all agreed would sound a certain way == I digress, my inner linguist loves this topic — but how we believe in a word is what gives it meaning.

    Ever notice how no one agrees exactly on the color of that wall over there? Some say crimson, others say burgundy and others call it a rosy winey color. All the same wall — but different perceptions and beliefs. (yes, I’ve been caught in fights over color!)

    So woo-woo – if we believe and have been taught it’s derogatory (sp?) it is.

    I used to say that my job was to get the woo-woo out of the closet. That is tell one of my closest friends whispered to me that “woo-woo” was the word used in her family for the female body parts!

    Now that word is always imbued with that nuance and as much as I still help people let their own purpose fly (even if they think no one will take them seriously) I can’t say woo-woo without laughing. (like the 5 year old I obviously am!)

    Thanks!

  4. Peggie March 9, 2011 at 10:17 am #

    I mean til (as in until) not tell….

  5. Susan March 9, 2011 at 10:34 am #

    Hi Claire,

    Hmm, that’s a really good point! But there are some that might assign the label “woo-woo” to Emotional Intelligence, too.

    Luckly, I think that much that is intangible, including EI, is gaining acceptance in the corporate world. But like anything it takes time and gentle persistence relentlessly applied.

  6. Susan March 9, 2011 at 10:36 am #

    Jenny,

    You are quite welcome, my dear, and thank YOU for spurring something that burned a hole in my pocket!

  7. Susan March 9, 2011 at 10:39 am #

    Hi Peggie! Thanks for stopping by and for your comments! Stuff like this appeals to my Inner Linguist as well. (Do Linguists say “stuff?”)

    Yes, “how we believe in a word is what gives it meaning.”

    Now you’ve imbued “woo-woo” with new meaning for us, too – I’m not sure whether to thank you or not! *Grins*

  8. Jesse March 9, 2011 at 12:39 pm #

    Yes, Yes and more Yes!!!

    My head was enthusiastically nodding in agreement as I read.

    My feet are firmly planted but (I mean and) they aren’t stuck in one place. They take me all over to help me express all the facets of my personality, including the authentically, right-brained, passionate, joy-seeking real parts that thrive on connection.

    Love this post and the way you write.

  9. Square-Peg Karen March 9, 2011 at 2:08 pm #

    Lots to think about here (especially because I use the – sometimes seen as derogatory – term Square-Peg a lot) – and/but even MORE than I’m enjoying the ideas presented here (and I’m enjoying and pondering them loads!!),

    I’m thrilled with how the discussion carried over from Jenny’s post – this kind of ongoing, creative think-expanding stuff makes my heart beat faster!!

    Woo Woo!

  10. Susan March 9, 2011 at 2:24 pm #

    Hi Jesse! So glad you agree, although I’m not surprised. The work you’ve been doing and the stories you’ve been telling about how you have been reframing your life inspire me!

  11. Susan March 9, 2011 at 2:31 pm #

    Hey Karen,

    It is a bit of a challenge, because I love irony. So wearing “Square Peg” and even “Woo-woo” as a badge of honor isn’t necessarily a bad thing. I’m more concerned about how easy it is to take on, even unconsciously, the negative baggage and connotations that can go along with such labels and enable us to limit ourselves.

    Yes, this ongoing, inter-site exchange of ideas is pretty cool. It’s neat being part of a larger community!

    Woo-hoo! (or should I say Woo-woo?)

  12. Tisha March 11, 2011 at 6:45 pm #

    I LOVE this post Susan! It’s so on point as far as the language that many of us use to make ourselves “less than” in a subtle way. I’ve been giving a lot of thought lately to how to use words that are more self-affirming and supportive in everyday conversation. We’ve all been so conditioned as a society to use self-defeating language without even realizing that we’re doing it – saying things like “oh, I’m hanging in there”, “It’s a struggle, but…” or “I’m JUST a coach” may seem harmless but they slowly take away little pieces of our confidence.
    You make a great case for re-thinking the “Woo-Woo” word.
    The re-framing exercise is wonderful…I’m going to have to make use of that regularly!

  13. Susan March 12, 2011 at 7:09 am #

    Thanks Tisha! That’s the challenge – we often don’t stop to think about the language we’re using, and the effect it has on us. Becoming aware of this and consciously changing the language we use makes a big difference.

    I’d love to hear stories about how you apply the reframing exercise – feel free to suggest a guest post!

  14. Willie Hewes April 10, 2011 at 2:58 am #

    Now I want to write a blog post called “skeptics have a right brain too”.

    I agree that, if what you do is a bit woo, you probably don’t want to use that word or at least you should be aware that it’s a way of putting yourself down. But as a skeptic and a visual artist, I’m kind of annoyed at the way this post & comments seem to suggest that anything right-brained is in the realm of woo. That’s just not right.

    To say something is woo is to say it is unproven or unprovable. That it’s a matter of faith or truthiness rather than knowledge and data.

  15. Susan April 10, 2011 at 8:52 am #

    Hi Willie! Thank you for this. I think you make a good point, but I would venture to say that perhaps we are talking about a spectrum, not about something completely different. I believe that much of what is considered “woo” is just right-brain, and much of what is right-brain is unfairly considered “woo.” Where does one draw the line? I disagree that it is simply a question of knowledge and data, because knowledge and data are evolving all of the time.

    Thanks for joining the conversation, I’m glad you’re here!

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