Your words matter

Via Creative Commons

I remember I was walking with a friend once when she said, “I wasn’t able to..” and then quickly corrected herself to say “I didn’t choose to..” She did it so quickly that perhaps the others in our group didn’t even notice. I knew, though, that she was trying her best to make her words count.

Our words express our thoughts but I think they also shape our thoughts. Whether it’s a mantra you repeat to yourself, or a cadence sung by a marching platoon, or a prayer said by memory, we often say things to help us shape our behavior accordingly.

I’m convinced that if we use the language of vitriol, anger, or bitterness, we become more likely to live out these things.

I have made an effort, therefore to eliminate certain words and phrases from my vocabulary:

“I’m tired”: Just saying it seems to make it more true.

“I’m busy”: I want to send the opposite message, which is “I have time for you.”

“I’ll try”: Yoda was right.

“I’m sorry but…”: The “but” ruins the apology.

“Good luck.”: I don’t believe in luck. I say something like “Do your best and you’ll be great.”

“I haven’t had time…”: It’s really “I haven’t taken the time.”

There’s one other aspect of language, one I don’t usually bring up because I don’t want to come off as holier than thou, but it’s important to who I am. This is the use of profanity. I have many friends who enjoy using four-letter words and I don’t respect them less for it. For me, though, I decided when I was very young to avoid profane and vulgar language. This is for three reasons:

  1. I don’t want to be different depending on who I’m around. I want to be the same person whether I’m speaking to a child or a priest or a colleague or a friend. And the language we use is part of who we are.
  2. My father used incredibly harsh and foul language and I decided early on to distance myself from that.
  3. I really enjoy using my vocabulary. I like words, and I like choosing the best word.

I try not to put people on a pedestal, but I will admit that former UNC coach Dean Smith does occupy a place of prominence for me. I’m not sure of his reasons, but he is famous for not using profanity. “That’s something I can control”, he said. “I yelled at players,” he confessed. “In practice, not in public.”

Which brings me to the last point: the tone of how we say things. I understand the need for yelling (and I yelled too many times when my children were young). I think there’s something remarkable about keeping your voice low and steady during times of stress. When there is a hurricane all around you, you can be the calm eye of the storm.

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