“Words are stones” wrote Carlo Levi in 1955
Words matter. I have had this catchphrase on my WhatsApp status for quite some time. And still, I’ve found no reason good enough to change it — words matter. Whether we are giving negative feedback, framing a topic, describing someone, or just sending a short electronic message, the way we choose to do that can mean the world to the recipient.
The use of words is an obsession for writers. Words are like little jewels — they have a sound, a color, and of course, a meaning. Arguably poetry is the means through which words detonate their maximum power. The white space on the page of a poem is filled with the richness each word emanates for the reader to experience.
The choice of words tells you a lot about who’s using them. One can distinguish a speech “coming from the heart” from a detached and formal discourse. A huge number of books and articles have addressed the role of communication in regulating relationships in various contexts. Meaningful silences have become equally associated with the ability to captivate attention and mastering audiences.
Politics is the activity that perhaps best exemplifies the link between words and actions. Electoral narratives are created to trigger a voting action. The choice of words can significantly contribute to gauging support for a legislative initiative. The centrality of the use of words in politics is also responsible for degrading the very act of speaking, in many people’s eyes. Words with no deriving consistent action can kill one’s credibility.
Language is behavior. It will signal our values (or the lack of) and will bring into the light of day our attitudes and assumptions. When the language used is authentic and the underlying values are healthy, it stays in people’s minds and goes a long way.
Words bear responsibility
Looking things up in the dictionary was a frequent activity in my childhood home. I was educated early on about the importance of utilizing the correct words, and to learn as many words as possible so to never run short of options for expressing something.
Still now, if I see a poorly written text or an inappropriately used word, I get slightly irritated. But that’s just me and my almost holy respect for verbal and written expression. At the macro-level, one cannot overstate enough the impact of choosing certain words over others. From the role of hate speech in inciting violence to the impact that generalizations have on minorities and diverse groups, words can be more powerful than weapons.
The “Right” speech
Buddhist monks are masters in the wise use of words. Buddhism preaches “Right speech” as the fourth leg of the Buddhist Noble Eightfold Path. Far from being a Buddhism expert, I still find this approach fascinating. The “Right speech” is about telling the truth and doing so in a kind manner which promotes harmony among people. Lying while saying something nice or being honest while hurting the other person are both short of positive outcomes. Being truthful in a loving way seems the perfect solution to reconcile authenticity and ethics.
This approach is in contrast with the belief that harsh feedback helps the receiver, which is very popular in traditional management theories, and is still largely applied in the business world, unfortunately. Despite many managers still believing in the “power” of harsh feedback, there is enough literature out there, both scientific and otherwise, showing that it is ineffective and, more often than not, counterproductive. Most of you reading this piece should be familiar with the work of Dale Carnegie, namely, How to Win Friends and Influence People. The very first chapter of the book speaks on the uselessness of harsh criticism. By the way, that book was originally written over 80 years ago in 1936.
A manager also encounters his/her team on many other occasions and not just during “reviews”. I’ve experienced many instances of lack of trust and a choice of words painfully reflecting that fact. Usually the conversation contains little information, does not include any positive message, and leaves the recipients confused (and even more diffident).
If we are managing people, we should always remember that they are the most important asset to our organization. Our words need to be a reflection of that. Understanding, kindness, truthfulness, respect should inform our choice of language. Every human being has an inherent need for acknowledgment and appreciation of his/her unique characteristics. The words we use will tell someone if we hold them in the proper consideration.
Gender issues in language
Language itself is not sexist, just as it is not obscene; but it can connote sexist attitudes as well as attitudes about social taboos.
Intrinsically masculine terms like “men” when describing human beings or the fact that most generic appellations are masculine (such as “God”), contributes to the feminine dimension still not being equal.
Attention to this topic has certainly increased in recent years, but a lot remains to be done to create and normalize new words and new ways of expressing things.
Can we be thoughtful yet fast with our speech?
One could argue that the speed of modern communication makes carefully crafted wording speech or messages an unrealistic expectation. Yet, U.S. President Donald Trump has often engaged in hateful speeches within the space of a tweet. But on the other (and more positive) hand, newly re-elected New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern will likely be remembered for, among other things, her succinct “be strong, be kind” message to the population during this pandemic.
Words matter. Linguistic and social change go hand in hand. Every time we choose how we want to say something, we suggest an intention. We position ourselves. We express who we are and our vision of the world.
My WhatsApp contacts will continue to see “Words Matter” on my status. It is one of my humble ways to keep the attention to this vital topic. The childhood dictionary may have been buried under the dusts of time but my love for words has only grown larger. The Right speech is a shape of communication but is above all a mindset. Whatever we choose as our preferred way of communicating, we always leave a mark. Let’s strive for that mark to be positive.