Words have an amazing amount of power, never mind what certain youthful rhymes claim (personally, I’d often rather be beaten with a stick, and possibly a stone or two, than sit through some of the insults I’ve endured). Words have such power in fact, that most of us learn from a young age to carefully consider them and think about what we say before we say it. Not that such teachings keep us from saying the wrong thing at the wrong time.
One of the first times I realized it was occasionally better to remain quiet was in first grade. I initially struggled to navigate the complicated waters of public school and faced the common problem of a class bully. I lamented to my mom one afternoon about his relentless teasing.
“He just does it to get attention, Honey,” she said.
It was a revelation. The next day at school we stood in line and he ended up right behind me. I looked on him with new eyes and actually felt a stirring of pity. At least I did right up until I opened my big mouth.
“You don’t have to be mean to people to get attention. We can just be friends,” I said with the open, true sincerity of a child.
As an adult, I can clearly see that he did act out mostly to get the attention I’m sure he craved. I also clearly see that it was not the best idea to point that out. Good thing I was young and spry and could duck quickly.
Obviously, there are times we should keep our words to ourselves, but there are others when we should. That doesn’t absolve us of the need to carefully consider them, of course. Even when the words are completely harmless, we should consider how they will sound out of their original context, such as when I talked with a girlfriend’s mom.
“She wouldn’t even let me get to first base once,” I complained.
She fixed me with a hard stare and said, “Why are you trying to get to first base with my daughter? You’d better not even think about rounding for second.”
Through much stammering I explained that her daughter played first base in a co-ed softball game in which we were on opposite sides. She literally wouldn’t let me get to first base. Had I carefully considered my words, I probably would have started with that pertinent information and saved quite a bit of embarrassed stuttering. Context truly is important.
But we must more than just context in to account when choosing our words. Setting plays in to how others receive our words as well. Yes I realize, that setting could be considered a component of context, but go with me on this (well, don’t go with me, go along with me).
Public restroom are inherently awkward places, especially for men. Once at work, I stood at the sink and washed my hands when a co-worker came and washed his hands beside me. There was a pause during which both of us were trying to determine the etiquette of public restrooms and rather we should speak or not. He did.
“Sorry I haven’t made a move on you in a while,” he said.
I stopped washing my hands, turned to him, carefully considered my words (which he clearly had not), and said, “Don’t ever say that to me again in a bathroom.”
The thing is, I knew exactly what he was talking about. We regularly play chess throughout the day over our cell phones (fun fact, chess games take forever when you can only move three of four times a day. We do work you know). He simply meant it had been a while since he moved one of his chess pieces in the game we currently played. Unfortunately his words, taken out of context and in a different setting, sounded odd at best.
With me so far? Context and setting are important, but we must unfortunately also juggle timing in the mix. Once in high school I felt the need to comment to someone who wore a tie to school.
“Going to a funeral? Can I come? Who died?”
“My uncle.” Oops. In my defense, he would have laughed on any day he wasn’t going to a funeral. Of course, I still should have carefully considered my words and their possible timing before I uttered them.
A final consideration is to actually listen to words. We should carefully consider others’ spoken words, and we should definitely carefully consider our own even after we’ve said them. I once listened to a girl I went out with one time (but a very good date) explain why she was leaving me to go back to her ex-boyfriend.
“How does he make you feel?” I asked her.
“He treats me like dirt and always makes me cry. I don’t remember ever being happy with him.”
“And how do I make you feel?”
“You make me feel so wonderful! I always smile around you and I feel great just talking to you.”
“So why do you want to be with him?”
“Because I love him!”
I don’t think she was listening to either of us, though to be fair, I believe they ended up getting married and were mostly happy from a few accounts. I’m glad it wasn’t a mistake for her.
Clearly, bad things can happen if we don’t carefully consider our words. Every now and then, though, a perfect storm of careless communication brews into fierce downpour that washes any sensibility away. When more than one person fails to consider context, setting, timing, and listening. I found myself in the center of such a tempest one morning when I required surgery.
I had greatly mixed feelings. On the one hand, the purpose of the surgery was to determine, and hopefully alleviate, the source of pain I lived with at the time. On the other hand, the plan was to slice open my scrotum to poke around and look. I was sensitive about this for a variety of reasons. Okay, mostly one.
My parents dropped my off at the surgery center because Chrisie needed to handle a couple of things before joining us there. We managed to get there before it opened so we waited in the parking lot. For some reason my dad decided to share the following charming story about someone he knew.
“It was crazy,” Dad said, “He went in expecting just a simple procedure. They found out he had cancer and other problems while he was out and had to castrate him. He didn’t find out until he woke up.”
“You think maybe, just maybe, this wasn’t the best time to share that particular gem?”
“I guess I didn’t think about it,” he laughed.
I tried and failed to ignore the story, but it was too late. A deeper dread already infected me. Things evened out a bit until they took me back to prep me for surgery. A nurse came and asked if I wanted something to help me relax.
“Yes, please,” I said. I previously learned the hard way that “yes” was always the right answer in these situations. She added something to my IV and I immediately felt it’s effects. “Remember not to sign any important documents while you’re thinking is impaired,” the nurse reminded me before she walked away.
The nurse came back a while later while I still sat up and chatted with Chrisie.
“We have some things for you to sign,” she said.
“Um, isn’t this what you told me not to do a while ago?”
“You know, it is kind of funny that we do this second, huh?”
“Or sinister,” I replied, “Ya’ll should probably consider that next time.”
“You don’t seem to be feeling it yet anyway, so I think we’re good.”
“Oh, I’m feeling it.”
“Do you need some more?”
“No, I’m fine thanks.”
“I’ll give you another just in case.”
“It’s really not necessary. Uh, whoa.” I suddenly had trouble focusing, but I did notice she withdrew another syringe from my IV. “Okay, I’m definitely feeling it now. I’m totally relaxed.”
I kept talking with Chrisie, but had difficult choosing my words. I do remember she rolled her eyes a lot more than usual.
She came back a third time and frowned. “You shouldn’t be talking so much,” she said. She obviously didn’t know me at all. “You might need another.”
“Please don’t,” I said. I didn’t enjoy the feeling of control slipping away.
“I think you need it she said, “You’re talking too much for it to be working.”
“He’s really not talking much at all, not for him anyway,” Chrisie tried to explain.
The nurse didn’t exactly ignore us, but she certainly didn’t consider our words because she gave me another dose. That’s when the walls began to puddle on the floor which inexplicably thought it was in a musical. The choreography was amazing.
“I’m so sorry,” Chrisie said as the nurse walked away.
“Honey,” I said a little too loudly, “Make sure my boys are safe afterwards.”
“Count them!” I don’t remember much in the waiting room after that, but I’m sure anything I said wasn’t considered beforehand in the slightest.
Sometime later. I groggily woke up. Chrisie was beside me so I asked, “Are my boys safe?”
“Are you sure?”
“Did you count?”
She finally laughed and said, “You don’t know what you’re saying.”
The thing is, I knew exactly what I was saying. I carefully considered it (as much as the drugs would allow). She carefully considered her words as well because she said, “I’d love you anyway, but both are there.”
“I love you two,” I said. Then I looked at Chrisie, “And I love you more.”