Sweet Nothings – Is Capitalism Destroying Our Love Language?

language of privilege
Sweet NothingsCollage by Lily Pichon Flannery, Getty Images

The message, which sends my phone shivering across the desk, begins as many do: Blessings, Divine Sister! It lands in a WhatsApp group called ‘Hermanas London’ which translates as Sisters of London. There are thousands and thousands of members across the Hermanas groups which cover the globe from Tulum to Ibiza, and the messages, predominantly written in English, are generally promoting an event or renting out a room.

This one message is selling £88 tickets to something called a ceremonial circle held in London’s South Kensington. There are other messages too – promoting sound baths, soul journeys, transcendental meditation and ‘deep energetic healing techniques’. A message selling an online tarot card reading begins, ‘Hello Beautiful Wild Soul’. Everyone is promising ‘connection’ and a ‘heart led’ experience. In a message about a sublet the person searching for a room is described as ‘conscious’.

Words like divine, energy, healing, gratitude, community, intentional and connection aren’t new. But their pervasiveness is. Words that were once reserved for those closest to us — ‘sister’, ‘dearest’ and ‘family,’ for example — and phrases like ‘with deepest love’ are now used to address strangers. Because even if the Hermanas was founded on an authentic need for community, it now has 17,000 members, and therefore keeping its foundations intact. ‘As we grow there is a desire to keep the intimacy of the community,’ says the co-founder, Dragana Nožica.

Intimacy can only exist between a limited number of people, but in 2024, terms of endearment have shifted to the language of commerce; this is where spirituality meets capitalism or, more accurately, where community is being repurposed for profit. As the world tumbles through a ‘permacrisis’ (a term which only entered the Collin’s English Dictionary in 2022), it’s no wonder we’re grasping for anything that gives more meaning to our lives.

We’re post-pandemic, experiencing a cost-of-living-crisis and an era of conflict and war - and heading into a year with three major political elections looming (in the the US, the UK and India). It’s easy to understand the appeal of anything that foregrounds the comfort of connection in drudgery of the everyday.

It also makes sense that those with an ulterior motive have noticed this vernacular – and they are using it to get our attention. It's the language I see in my yoga class on T-shirts emblazoned with ‘I am the light’. Over on social media, phrases such as ‘blessed day’, forced on Margaret Atwood’s Handmaids are being actively used and hashtagged (and not just by Craig David). Even Keir Stamer talked about ‘healing’ during his speech at the Labour Party Conference, giving the political a spiritual undertone. It can all sound like an A.I. bot has only had the customers of LA’s health food store Erewhon to learn from.

Those selling stuff are in on the act too. A ticket to something that is ultimately free, like sitting under a full moon, is listed on Eventbrite for £17, inviting people to connect with each other and 'release what is no longer serving us.' (In fact, there is a whole sub-genre of full-moon meditations on the ticket site.) I have also been ads on Instagram and WhatsApp for events described as ‘Energy Exchange = £20’. Gatherings, especially those in the wellness space, are often described as ‘women’s circles’, drawing on feelings of tradition to give greater meaning to what is otherwise a group of strangers coming together to exercise or talk.

As linguist Amanda Montell explains, ‘Whether wicked or well-intentioned, language is a way to get members of a community on the same ideological page. To help them feel like they belong to something bigger.’ She’s right: even the oat milk in my fridge is starting to sound a bit culty. ‘Here comes the post milk generation’ reads the carton. It's clearly a tongue-in-cheek joke, but one that doubles as commentary on our collective need for connection.

‘I feel a lot of sadness because [this way of speaking/advertising] stems from a place of wanting to manufacture intimacy,’ says Fariha Róisin who wrote the book, Who is Wellness For?, an examination of wellness culture and who it leaves behind. ‘Society is so fragmented, there is so much displacement, isolation, fear and loneliness, we are all longing for connection. I don’t want to be The Divine Police but you can’t bypass the length of time and experiences you need to truly connect with someone. What’s terrifying is that companies are beginning to use this language, and because companies truly don’t care, that’s when it becomes deeply manipulative.’

sweet nothings love language
Tim Robberts - Getty Images

When we keep reappropriating words, they can lose their original meaning. For example, now that therapy speak is casually sprinkled throughout our group chats and social media feeds, there are also new interpretations we need to be aware of. Take 'safe-space' — a phrase that was first popularised by the gay-liberation and feminist movements of the 1960s to denote places where queer people could be themselves without harassment.

Now, it’s a term used to describe a yoga class or someone’s DMs. ‘You can’t just throw together a "safe space",’ explains the psychotherapist Helen Sproat, ‘They are engineered and planned for, they are controlled environments. For a space to be truly safe, someone will have thought about everything from who is there and who has access to how to facilitate what happens.’

But why are these words so effective? I ask Deborah Cameron, a linguist and professor at The University of Oxford to delve into this new rhetoric. ‘Obviously some have been taken from therapy,' she says. Meanwhile, '“Sister” in the context of relationships is borrowed from African-American English, particularly from its use in Black churches. Some words like “blessed” and “divine” are what the secular took from religion.’

No wonder this vernacular is compelling – these words have been cherry-picked from various aspirational ideals and communities and melded together into a rhetoric that feels both like it’s always been here but is also inspiring and new.

We have to ask ourselves if it’s fair or right to appropriate language from other communities, cultures and spaces. ‘I understand people are looking outside of religion for community,’ says Jessica Wood, a 25-year-old ex-missionary from Sheffield. ‘The first time I was called “sister” was by a friend standing outside of church, I felt welcomed into a community, it felt special. I take a lot of comfort from the language of spirituality - it’s more than just words, it is a way of articulating who I am and how I want to participate in the world.’

Caution may be the watchword going forward. Because if there terms continue to be taken from communities and co-opted by commerce - to sell us a tarot-card reading or a carton of oat milk – their usage will far from blessed. In fact, they'll end up feeling little more than transactional.

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