Friday, January 7, 2011

Do Words Matter?

There was a slight scuffle in an online homeschooling group I joined recently. One person was being extremely abrasive and another threw out the term "schoolyard bullies". It turned into a short discussion about whether words matter. The old "sticks and stones may break my bones, but words will never hurt me" was even thrown out there.

To be honest, I was kind of surprised there was even debate about this issue. Certainly, words don't have an immediate effect on your physical well being. But I feel like they DO matter. Words have the power to change minds. To build people up, or to tear them down. Surely I am not the only person who has mulled over something someone said for days...sometimes even years...at a time. Would I be better off if I could just let it all roll off my back? Maybe. On the one hand, words really wouldn't hurt me then. On the other hand, I also wouldn't be open to honest, well intentioned criticism that might make me a better person.

And if words matter, do we have a moral obligation to take that into account? Is it our job to keep the brain to mouth filter firmly in place and consider the impact our words might have on others? There are plenty of topics that will naturally lead to disagreement and debate, but does that mean it's appropriate to throw in personal attacks, or to unintentionally deride people rather than to think about the effects of our words?

I'm not saying I'm perfect, far from it. I can be too harsh with my children. I can roll my eyes and snidely comment on someone's behavior behind their back. Both traits that in an ideal world I would stop completely (and alas, the world ain't ideal). But I do try (key word, TRY) to deal gently with people or in public forums. Maybe I've just spent too much time discussing what can be a delicate topic with mothers in the throes of postpartum hormones, but I try to think through what I'm saying and HOW I'm saying it before I toss it out there. And that goes double in online situations, where there is more time to type, think, delete, and re-type.

There are people I just don't trust myself to be nice to, or who have repeatedly been rude to me (I don't give unlimited chances, sorry.) and I keep my distance from those people. Once I choose to join an interaction though, I try to be mindful of the consequences of my actions. I think this is a lesson I've learned the hard way over the last 10 years or so that's worked out better for my life than my old way of doing things.

What do you think? Do words matter? Is it the content of the message, how it's conveyed and/or the intention behind it that's important? Or is it a "sticks and stones" situation where the message doesn't matter at all and it's the recipient's responsibility to deal with things that are hurtful to them?

1 comment:

Carolyn said...

Well I'm sure you won't be shocked to learn that I think words matter. Since we have yet to develop telepathy, it's the best way we have to communicate ideas and feelings. It's naive in the extreme (or selfish) to believe that you can say whatever you want and then smooth it all over by saying that you had good intentions. Do I always say the right thing? Uh no. But I do recognize that my words do have an effect on the people around me and I do try to rectify it when I make a misstep. I just see that as part of being a considerate person.

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