Choose Your Words As If They Matter
Writers think an awful lot about words. But, when you think about it, you realize that all people who speak should think about them even more. And in this age of texting, short messages by email, and all the other amazing technologies with which we have endeavored to communicate more effectively, words matter more than ever.
Communicate face to face as often as you can
The trouble is, we have made things much worse due to three simple realities of our modern age. The first problem is that we no long communicate face to face as nature directed our species to do, given evolutionary time and our former, tribal regionalism.
The second challenge is that there are more demands for us to connect to others, for example, even when it is with a two-word text. More than ever before, we ‘message.’ We now typically confirm appointments by text or email, whereas traditionally, we used to make appointments face to face with real people. This means we direct a one way act, and wait for a recipient to do the same. We now shop and very often work, in the same way.
We don’t even meet with our friends as much, or talk on the phone. Whether some of this evolved from too much screen time with entertainment binging, gaming, or a host of other modern distractions, it is still related to our second challenge. We simply leave messages, more now, than our traditionally very social selves did in the past.
Present your authentic self, whenever you can
A third problem, and this is a severe one, is anonymity. We have become, in effect, people with more ways to connect than ever before. Yet, we live in an age of communication where more damaging words, incomplete messages, non-two-way conversations, and misunderstanding result. It is as if we invented a magical device to reach out to more people than ever before, and some evil monster planted a bug in it that makes us more defensive than diplomatic.
We are often online and behind many layers of self. We may present our best self on Facebook. And yet, that doesn’t stop us from presenting our cruel, and often uninformed self, online in other venues. a visit to a comment section will confirm this. People, given anonymity, often become rude, crude, and even lewd.
We even have a whole vocabulary for it: trolls, flames and sick burns, haters, SHOUTING!, cyber bullying. The list grows every day.
Given these three challenges, think, then say words out loud before saying, or sending them.
It’s not all outrageous and raunchy out there. Many people make honest efforts to communicate effectively, and to present words and delivery in ways that attempt to fulfill the promise of the world wide web for community and connection.
In Patrick Ewers excellent Better Humans article, he presents three things that directly impact the art of communication. These are tone, body language, and words. He cites Albert Mehrabian’s research to confirm this, and I do not disagree.
By saying words out loud, and noting your tone as you say them, you can decide whether a recipient can “read” tone. Because words themselves, are only a small percentage of the total communication equation.
Whereas, studies have shown that words are the least important of these three, words do still matter. And human beings, given our social structures, are wordy organisms. When we do not communicate in person, allowing full use of our tone and body language, words become even more crucial to creating effective communication. By saying words out loud and noting your tone as you say them, you can decide whether a recipient can “read” tone.
Speak in useful words, not in ineffective ones
Let’s take negative words, for example. Leaving a tweet or comment calling someone a left wing “Libtard”, or a right wing-nut, “Repug” does nothing whatsoever to persuade, or communicate. General name calling: “moron, retard, Feminazi, misogynist pig, illegal, idiot” come to mind.
Sadly, to examine our culturally, current words critically, we must dip our toes into the more filthy end of the cesspool. Especially online, here we will find here any number of words that denigrate people as prostitutes, murderers, rapists, and so much more. It is truly awful. But I wish at this point to give a shout out to our full human potential.
There is a reason we call such insults and attacks socially inappropriate, and politically incorrect. Whatever your views upon PC police tactics and censorship of free speech, you must admit that we no longer find it socially acceptable to use the N word, which was once completely common in everyday use. We are beginning to see civilized society view sexist words such as “bitch” and “cunt” with the same kind of unacceptability. Or consider, “dick”, or “douchebag”. You will still see these is use, but if you don’t see people tossing them out so contemptuously in public spaces any more. This is a good sign that most people find it morally repugnant to use them this way.
This is not to say we have washed out our community mouths with the sweet-smelling soap of considerate, PC discourse.
In fact, we hear some of these words bandied about far more in general conversation than we did a generation ago. It may seem contradictory, but the ease with which people swear in public is more common, even as some of the more egregious slurs are being called out. The word “bitch’ for example is used playfully, and for both genders. It is still a slur, and some of us choose to avoid it; but as the meaning changes, it may do less harm. In my opinion, this is how messy, human, social acceptability is born.
Consider yourself a citizen of an ever-changing, worldwide civility
It takes a global village to ever so slowly raise a global awareness of evolving social norms. As in the case of the aforementioned B and C words for women, common use has changed. Many of us will still feel demeaned when called a “Stupid B,” or “Ugly C!”, but we also can observe that more people use the terms more casually than before.
We will also say things such as, “Don’t be a dick,” or “Don’t be a pussy,” and although many of us find it quite abhorrent, it doesn’t carry the savage bite it once did. Contradictory? Perhaps, but nevertheless re-claiming such words, re-assigning their victims, and down-playing of their nastiness, does occur.
Will these words ever go the way of the N-word, which presidents, police and plumbers tend to only whisper off tape, or, in private? That remains to be seen. A different standard seems to apply to racist terms that does not follow the same form as sexist terms. To improve this would display growth and maturity on a true communication mountain-top that still seems to dazzle in the distance.
Think of how your message will be heard by receivers
Given all of this, there is plenty of room for confusion. But, wait, when it comes to taking a human neuronal firing in the brain and converting it to squiggles called language, re-working these squiggles into spoken or written words, it gets much more complicated.
You should keep all of this in mind when considering your intent about what you wish to say. That meaning has to travel from that tiny electric spark (your thought), through the maze of reconfiguration, avoidance all of the social potholes, past all the roadblocks, and missed exits along that path, and make the journey twice. Two way communication makes all the difference.
The message that doesn’t travel twice falls at the wayside as an unreceived, one-way message. Let’s say it twice, because this a crucial to avoiding miscommunication problem number two as outlined at the beginning: Complete communication must always be both sent and received. Leaving a message does not guarantee a receiving of that message, as any one who has failed to note a blinking, beeping, or other missed indication among all the noisy, roar of communication traffic out there.
Two way traffic: your words must be sent and received
Another simple way to get lost in both one-way, and two-way traffic is sarcasm. You know what you meant to say was humorous, or playful, or silly, or well, sarcastic. Your intended audience may or may not know that. Read, or re-phrase words in such a way that your simple review of them is crystal clear to you, first. Only then should you run the risk of alienating your recipient.
If we were to meet in person, as outlined by Albert Mehrabian suggests, our well-honed social intercourse with which we evolved meets this need. Our tone and body language cannot be so well defined with left messages, however. Words are more slippery today, however, as we are opened up to an entire world wide arena of different languages, codes, adaptations, slang, and so much more.
Finally, words in the context of that wider world have to be observed by all of us more carefully. There is much talk today about fake news, divisive politics, scape-goats of “otherism”, and some truly obnoxious bullying. People are rightfully concerned that marginalizing people, or politicizing topics such as abortion, gun control, and even climate change threatens to destroy civility altogether.
This is much like the proverbial car wreck on the information super highway. We can’t tear our eyes away. We think everything has gone to potholes in our many disparate avenues of communication. We are more drawn to the sensational also, by the way we are wired. But at each self core, we are human and much of our interest is in connecting to all other humans effectively.
Use words of compassion, sweet is better than sour
But, consider this. People do come together with more pathways to success than ever before. When I was a child a corny sign at our school read:
“Be careful of the words you say, keep them soft and sweet. You’ll never know from day to day, which ones you’ll have to eat.”
There was a picture of marshmallows on the poster, or maybe I imagined that image. Ironically, I think humility and marshmallow, sweetness does not convey weakness, but strength.
To keep a voice, feel strong and powerful, find trust, friendship and humanity, we must all first be heard. Choose the kind of words that simply make you a more compassionate, tasteful person. You don’t have to be a marshmallow, just avoid harsh words. You will attract more understanding with a softer approach.
Connection happens when we make true efforts to reach each other.