My Senior Kindergarten teacher was universally loved by everyone at my elementary school. No matter what grade you were in, you could walk by the fenced off area for kindergarteners and wave, or say hello, and she’d return the gesture. She remembered everyone by name, even those who had graduated and came back to visit.
When it was “home time”, she would march us through the hallway and have us chant “W-A-L-K” or “Q-U-I-E-T”. I doubt we were aware she was subtly teaching us how to spell.
In class, there were flash cards with words on them and we’d spell them out. The one I still remember is, “Because”.
We would start out with “B-E”, take a half second pause, and then say “C-A-U-S-E, Because” with a quickened pace. I’ll never forget it.
I don’t think I ever appreciated the emphasis that teachers put on learning words. In Grade 3, we had a Spelling textbook and each unit had a list of words. Our homework was to write out each one, three times.
It was the most boring, repetitive thing. I didn’t get the point. But repetition helps you remember. That was the point.
In Grade 6, we read a book called, Bridge to Terabithia. For each chapter, we were given a list of words the teacher pulled from the chapter, and had to look up their definition in a dictionary.
Again, at the time it just felt like homework. I didn’t fully grasp the intention behind it.
At every step of the way, teachers were trying to expand our vocabulary. How could we use a word, if we didn’t know how to spell it? How could we use a word if we didn’t know what it meant?
I had a high school English teacher tell us, “Let every word tell.” He was quoting someone else, but I still think about that. “Let every word tell.” That’s how you weed out wordiness. If a word doesn’t contribute to what you want to say, don’t use it.
I had a university professor who would advise us before exams and assignments to, “Say what you mean and mean what you say.”
Sure, he was using a Dr. Seuss line out of context, but it was still effective.
Throughout our childhood, we were taught when to use certain words.
When someone gave us something – maybe it was a present for our birthday – there would be an adult to cue us up with, “What do you say?”
And we’d let out a, “Thank you!”
Or, if we were asking someone for something: “What do you say?”
Or, if there was a disagreement on the playground and the teacher pulled us aside to solve the problem.
There is a word or phrase for every situation in life. The hope is that people know the right one to use.
By the time we’re a full-fledged adult – let me know when that is, exactly – we’re expected to use the words that fit the situation. We’re supposed to be passed the stage of being told, “You don’t say that!”
“We’re supposed to be…”
We’re supposed to be masters of language, having amassed years of experience in social interactions, both online and in person.
We know that tone is almost everything. We know that when someone takes a while to respond to a message and then replies with a few words, punctuated with a period, that something is probably wrong.
As adults, it’s not just what we say anymore. Saying “sorry” because someone told us to apologize, isn’t good enough anymore. Now, it’s about how we say it. It’s about showing that our words genuinely reflect our inner intentions.
We know when someone isn’t being sincere. We know when someone is just spitting out words, as if they’re an arcade game dispensing tickets.
In a professional environment, emails can turn into a boomerang of clichés. And do any of us really talk like that in real life? Probably not. But it’s a professional email, it’s not a text message to a friend.
The situation calls for a certain tone; we know which one to use.
Sadly, there are people who cannot use words. My grandmother has lost her ability to speak and write. Can she tell me what she’s thinking with non-verbal cues? Yes. It’s a way to communicate and use words, without actually using any.
This opens up a whole other realm of communication. Body language is a universal language and, sometimes, it says more than any amount of words do.
If you stop and think about it, we are all smarter than we realize. The things we now do instinctively, are things we’ve been forced to pick up on and develop, as we’ve gotten older.
Where am I going with this?
Well, words can be a dangerous tool.
It’s never been easier to tell someone – anyone – what you think. And yet, so many people abuse this ability. They leave their niceties at home, forget all the manners anyone ever tried to teach them, and venture off to belittle a human being.
You pick the right words, put them in the right order, and you can really tear a person down. Nowadays, it’s a very popular hobby, thanks to social media.
Ever just scroll through Twitter and see the hurtful replies people send to others? Ever just sit back and think, “Out of all the words they could’ve used, including none, they chose those.”?
You don’t need me to tell you there’s a problem with how people communicate with each other. It’s despicable.
Buckle up, now.
When I see people with powerful titles like, oh I don’t know – President – constantly using words to create the type of division that rapidly turns into hatred and violence, it’s disheartening.
No, that word isn’t strong enough on its own.
It’s just downright stupid.
I’m not a big fan of titles. I know why they exist, but in some instances, they really separate us. Can’t we all just be human beings and go from there?
Too many times I think titles allow people to hide under an invisibility cloak, while they do things someone without that title would never be allowed to get away with.
Titles are just words. We’re adults now. Your behaviour matters. Your tone matters. Your true intentions matter.
You can’t just get up to a podium and say throwaway lines that turn into chants. You can’t spew lies that you want people to accept as truths. You can’t get away with starting the fire and then quote the Billy Joel song, saying you didn’t, in fact, start the fire.
And you can’t walk away from the chaos, throw your hands up, and say, “Me? I would never. My words were twisted. I didn’t say those things.”
But you did.
People in positions of power are smart, even when they’re unbelievably unintelligent.
Because they know how to get their message across without dictating it word for word. The know the tone to use. They know which words to put in All Caps when they tweet. They know what will get people riled up.
They know how to do this because WE, as human beings, know how to do this.
We know how to manipulate words.
We know how to get a desired outcome without outright asking for it. (See: your childhood).
We know how to say the right thing, but bookend it with how we really feel, to cover our bases.
Words are a game and we’re all on the field at the same time. Maybe that’s why there’s so much yelling all the time.
If you want to put it in the most simplest of ways. That situation we all witnessed yesterday, came about because the alleged, “Most powerful person in the world” consistently used the wrong words for years. Years. Plural.
Don’t tell me he didn’t know what he was doing.
A four-year-old doesn’t know what they’re doing when they call someone a “poo poo head”. They laugh.
So, don’t tell me the President of a country didn’t know his words would lead to something dangerous and deadly.
There is a way to talk around things and have everyone know what, and who you are referring to.
I’ve done it this entire post. You know who I’m talking about. I haven’t said his name once.
And now we, the world, find ourselves at a point where even when someone makes a speech and says, “We must come together”, it sounds hollow and hopeless.
No kidding, we need to come together. What are you going to do to make that happen? How will you change things? What words will you engrain into our subconscious that affect our behaviour in a positive way?
If words are a game, then life is a team sport, and we all need to lean on each other to succeed.
I think we find ourselves in a culture where we feel this need to constantly say something. Heck, look at how long this blog post is.
But as I said earlier, you can say things without saying anything.
There’s a song lyric that goes, “You say it best when you say nothing at all.”
There’s a quote from former football coach, Paul Brown, that goes, “When you win, say nothing. When you lose, say less.”
I’m not saying people need to learn to be quiet, or not speak up. But maybe we can resist the urge to contribute something detrimental to the universal discourse.
Children aren’t going to spearhead this change. They’re going to follow the teachings passed down to them by adults. The words we use, they’ll use too, and as the generations turn over, nothing will ever get better.
So, therefore, it must be adults who change. It must be the ones who hold titles that hold power. It must be the ones who have the ability, patience, and determination to be a positive influence through the words they use, and then back it up with their actions.
But it also must be the rest of us, too. Be a good human being and treat everyone like a human being. This concept should not be harder to understand than the piece of technology you’re holding in your hand.
I’ll end with this.
What are words? What are these elements of speech and writing with which we fill the world?
Well, let me put it this way.
They say, “Speak from the heart.”
Do you know why?
The heart is a symbol of love.
Wouldn’t it be nice to fill the world with a bit more of that?
Let me know your thoughts below.
You can follow me on Twitter @CappyTalks