Sticks and stones
Can break my bones… but words can hurt me even more
What hurts us more? Physical pain or thoughtless words? I’m not expecting an answer to that one right now, but I do want to make some serious and important points about the power – and the potentially destructive power – of words. In the pre-digital age, we were encouraged to write with care, and our words were all the better for it. Today, with so many channels, where words get tossed around with too little care, it is more important than ever to keep thoughtfulness to the fore in all of our communication.
When a word becomes a sentence
Some years ago, when I was studying to be a therapist supervisor, we had a couple of visiting lecturers from South Africa who talked about the ‘shaming and blaming’ culture that they had observed in the British education system. I knew exactly what they meant; their comments were borne out by my own experiences growing up. Indeed, a friend of mine told me about his prep school report where next to ‘English’ and the percentage score was written one word: ‘thick’. That’s so awful that it’s funny. But it’s tragic too, to think what effect one word like that could have on a child and the adult that they would eventually become.
A teacher writing the word ‘thick’ seems outrageous because, well, it is outrageous. This is not a word that allows for any kind of growth. It’s just permanent damnation. You either are, or are not ‘thick’ and you don’t stop being thick – you’re thick for life. This is a situation where one word is a sentence. Who knows what harm that one word inflicted on the child?
The ‘how’ is as important as the ‘what’
The truly powerful impact of words was brought home to me in a newspaper article I read recently (link below). In this piece, a number of people recall key moments in their lives where words had an enormous impact on their lives, positive and negative. In this digital age, where words are tossed around so quickly and with such apparent abandon, I think it is particularly import for us to be reminded of their power.
Back when we regularly wrote letters to each other, we assembled our words with thought and care. The actual process of writing forced us to be aware of much more than just the ‘what’. We were constantly aware of the ‘how’ as well. Take handwriting, for instance. There is nothing more personalised than one’s handwriting, and when we wrote a letter, we had to put effort into making sure that the recipient was going to be able to read it. And we had to put time into the letter, sometimes discarding pages and rewriting them. Underlying all of these processes is an essential understanding of the power of our words. Texting affords none of this.
Thoughtfulness – it’s as important as ever
Texting is so instant and so fast, that it is nigh on impossible to give the same care and thought as one would when writing a letter, or even an email. When we text, we are not really engaging. We are not crafting words, we are hurling them without thought. We dash off a quick message, and once it’s gone, that’s it. We cannot retrieve it. In the old days, we could retrieve a letter, even if it meant standing by the postbox, waiting for the postman to arrive!
I saw an online meme recently that said while there were 30 billion WhatsApp messages sent per day, 48% of people said they were lonelier now than they’d ever been. I don’t know where those figures came from, but the message rings true. Thoughtfulness in communication is more important now than it has ever been. A key first step is to be aware of the power of our words and the impact they may have. Secondly, we must always challenge words that are sent to us, rather than just accepting them. Discourse and dialogue can do so much to mitigate the hurt and misunderstanding caused by thoughtless words.
Here is a link to the excellent article I mentioned earlier. It underlines, in a striking way, all that I have said in this post. I would be interested in your reactions to it.