A week ago today, Lisa and I had one of our rare fights. It started because I was careless.
We're working on taming a stray cat we're calling Ollie. She's a pretty little cat, with very soft fur and markings that are a cross between a gray tabby and a calico. Lisa is letting her come inside occasionally, both to get warm and to get used to us. Last Saturday, Ollie did something new. She jumped up on one of our recliners.
Now, I have a strange sense of humor that leans a great deal on absurdities. Most of the time, when someone doesn't get one of my jokes, it's because I haven't given them my often warped mental context.
When Ollie got on the recliner, I said what I thought was a harmless joke aimed at her. I used a rather rude word. Lisa thought it was aimed at her and took great offense. The next few hours were not pleasant for me.
Lisa wasn't my target. For that matter, neither was Ollie. The situation was, but without my context, how could my wife know that? It really didn't make things better that I got snippy with her that she didn't buy my explanation, not at first.
We got over it. We always do. But I forgot a very valuable lesson from a business communications class I took almost 20 years ago: take 100% of the responsibility for your message.
I'm certain most of us have heard this old saying - Sticks and stones may break my bones, but words can never hurt me. Well, this old saw is well-intentioned, but like using a rusty hammer when you mean to make a precise cut in a board, it's wrong.
We are a social species. Our ability to live with each other is bound up in our ability to tell each other our stories. Our ability to think is both shaped and limited by our language. We can transcend this limit, which in turn shapes our language.
If your doubt the power of words, consider these phrases:
- I love you.
- You may now kiss the bride.
- It's a boy/girl!
- We find the defendant guilty as charged.
- I'm sorry for your loss.
Words can wound, and words can heal. They can imprison you, and they can set you free. They can illuminate ideas with perfect clarity, and they can obfuscate them with infuriating indirection.
They can tell you the daily same old, same old. They can teach you timeless history. They can give you a boundless future.
The key is to be aware of the tools you have in your words, so that you are their master and not their slave. Or, to use another old saw, say what you mean and mean what you say.