Recently I've been thinking a lot about the power of words.
Certain words in particular, yes. But also just words in general. In a culture that prizes outgoing people with over the top personalities, where being charming and charismatic can get you as far or further than being talented and thoughtful, we've lost some (a lot!) of our care with words.
I used to have a habit of saying things that I didn't mean.
This was a long time ago. I was an introvert trying to fit into an extroverted world. And my fear of being caught out meant that I would fill silences and spaces with bullshit. I would say things just to entertain people. To be funny. To be liked.
It wasn't that I wanted to be the centre of attention. I just wanted to be a part of the tribe. Any tribe.
And so, basically, I was a pretty big jerk.
And then I would go home and feel this horrible wash of shame. It was like a bad coat of paint covering up the shininess of my soul. My true nature had spent so much time in the shadows that I would return to myself and feel so fake and guilty and inauthentic that I would want to drown it all out completely.
Eventually this led to depression, anxiety, suicidal depression, and finally shipping myself off to South America.
Yes. South America.
I didn't speak a lick of Spanish. Truly. I didn't take Spanish in High School. I studied for a couple months by myself before taking off to Ecuador. When I arrived I immersed myself in full time studies with a teacher for 3 months. And then I was on my own.
But what I learned in the process of learning to speak another language fluently, in navigating relationships in a language not my own, is the absolute vitality of approaching the spoken word with respect and a desire for accuracy.
Words have meaning.
Words have nuance.
Words have history.
We take speech and words for granted because speaking seems to be our birthright.
It took us very little effort to pick up our mother tongue. And if we come from any place of privilege at all then we feel comfortable to use language as we see fit. Not necessarily thinking about what our words mean to others. How our words will make people feel. Whether our words are in fact accurate.
When I was in my late teens and early twenties I started reading about Buddhism and I found myself reading about the Eightfold Path.
This is essentially eight ways of being or practices that will allow you to be a better person. To have less of a toxic effect on the people around you. And then to maybe eventually become enlightened.
These precepts blew my mind.
They showed me how far off from being a noble human I was. And my journey from there on out was trying and failing at becoming better.
The one precept that stuck out to me the most was of course RIGHT SPEECH.
As somebody who loves language, who loves to make jokes, to make people laugh, I have been ever so guilty of Wrong Speech. Of just saying things because they popped into my head and seemed funny at the time. Or even of just laying into someone behind their back because I'm feeling down and I just want someone to be culpable.
As I've practiced more, and as I've spent more time with a foreign language, and then later teaching English to non-native speakers, I've become a lot better at saying what I mean.
The more time you spend pulling a language apart, the more you begin to treasure it.
To treat speaking as a privilege rather than a right. And so I fall into the shame swamp less and less.
Which isn't to say that wrong speech doesn't happen.
Oh it happens all right. At least once a month, maybe more, I say something that I regret. But this is a lot better than every day multiple times a day. And it's also a lot better than just blinding racing through life with zero concern for how my words might affect others. I will take the shame swamp over ignorance any day of the week. Because feeling ashamed or guilty means I can change.
Actually we can all change. And we probably need to.
As we collectively march towards being better humans, more conscious humans, we need to start examining our language more. Asking ourselves whether that word is the right word to use. Asking ourselves if insults and derogatory comments are in fact accurate. Asking ourselves how we can use language to make a positive difference in our homes, in our place of work, in our communities.
When you see people doing things you don't like, the easy route is to use inaccurate, blanket, derogatory language to tear them down.
These are all words many of us use on a daily basis to describe politicians, celebrities, frenemies, co-workers, family members, random acquaintances.
It might feel great in the moment to say these things, but do they have any meaning at all?
Do they accurately reflect what you are truly trying to say? What you are actually upset about?
If you're from North America, you probably grew up hearing the saying, "If you don't have anything nice to say, don't say anything at all."
Most of us figured out pretty quickly that the people telling us this were being pretty hypocritical. I mean how often did you encounter someone who never said not-nice things? Practically never. And the nice people you did encounter often just turned out to be nice in public but mean in private.
So I propose a new catch phrase: If you don't have anything accurate to say, don't say anything at all.
If accuracy was our benchmark for how we should use language we'd probably have a lot less conflict. It's pretty hard to get upset when someone just gives you the facts.
I'm not asking for a humourless word where we all run around dryly rattling off statistics.
But instead a world where words are valued, considered, and used with care.