Years ago, when my knees were much younger, I ran four miles a day. One late-summer morning, I set off under ideal conditions with a clear sky, low humidity, and lovely breeze. I was reveling in the euphoria that often accompanies exercise when suddenly a yellow jacket flew in my mouth and stung me. Instinctively, I spit the bee out, but its stinger lodged in the roof of my mouth. I frantically yanked it from my palate just as the pain message reached my brain. Instantly, it felt like I had been kicked in the throat. I was stunned by the intense agony that such a tiny creature could inflict.
This incident came to mind recently during a moment of free association triggered by current social media posts. The swarm of venomous words flying frantically in search of their mark was striking. What happened to the claim that social media was going to improve interpersonal communication and strengthen relationships? It certainly is not substantiated by the current prevailing online climate. Apparently increasing the available forms of communication does not automatically improve the quality of communication. Everywhere, from Facebook to websites to news feeds, sarcasm, accusations, generalizations, aspersions, and downright vilification are rampant.
We are in the midst of a presidential campaign that has become verbally toxic, while at the same time, in classrooms all over America, our children are required to attend anti-bullying training. The potential future leaders of our country are epitomizing the very behavior our children are being warned not to exhibit. How can we, as adults, expect more of our children than we do of ourselves? When my 16-year-old son observed, “It doesn’t seem fair that we are expected to be more mature than the grown ups,” I had to agree. I replied, “It isn’t fair, but it will be worth the effort,” which launched us into a discussion about the power of words and using freedom of speech responsibly.
Here are highlights of the conclusions drawn from our conversation:
They may not break bones, but words can break hearts and spirits. When used as weapons, words can leave deep, lasting scars that interfere with and sometimes prevent fulfilling individual potential. Whether spoken or written, words can be either constructive or destructive.
As Frederick Douglas observed, “It is easier to build strong children than to repair broken adults.” Choose words that nurture rather than destroy.
Lately we seem enamored with people who “just say what’s on their mind” as though it were an admirable quality. But just because someone says what’s on his mind does not make it true, accurate, or even real. Oftentimes he is merely expressing his opinion, which may or may not be based in fact. The fact is you cannot say what is not on your mind. so mind what you say.
Becoming an adult means realizing that it is not necessary, or even desirable, to say whatever comes to mind. A hallmark of maturity is the ability to filter and edit thoughts before expressing them. Using forethought demonstrates consideration and respect for those with whom you are communicating.
Like it or not, there are repercussions from the things we say. Freedom of speech does not guarantee freedom from accountability. Builders are warned to measure twice, cut once. An equally safe policy is think twice, speak once, (or, better yet, not at all). Sometimes the most powerful thing to say is nothing.
When it comes to communication, there is no substitute for good manners and empathy. Practicing common courtesy increases the likelihood of being politically correct. Speak the way you want to be spoken to. Mark Twain wrote, “Kindness is the language the blind can see and the deaf can hear.”
• You can be honest without being cruel.
• You can disagree without being derogatory.
• You can’t take back words. If you said it, you thought it, whether you meant it or not.
• No one can put words in your mouth.
• What someone says to you reveals more about him than it does about you.
• Profanity and vulgarity should not be confused with wit, maturity, sophistication, or intelligence.
• Shouting might get you noticed, but speaking gently is more likely to get you heard.
• It is not what you say or how you say it that matters. It is what you say and how you say it that matters.
• For your words to mean anything, your actions must match them.
• Reread your message before hitting send.
Fortunately my encounter with the yellow jacket resulted in a full recovery. The pain subsided after a few hours leaving me with only an unpleasant, albeit now somewhat amusing anecdote. Those attacked by words do not always make such a quick or complete recovery. The damage can last a lifetime. Perhaps if the words we aim at others got stuck in our throat and caused us the pain we may inflict on them, we would exercise more caution before opening our mouths. Use your words to sustain, not sting.
Carolyn Waterbury-Tieman is a resident of Lexington, Ky. She has been married for 29 years and has two sons. She spent 15 years in various agencies and clinics as a family therapist and parent educator and has written extensively on the topic of parenting. To contact her, please e-mail paren