Words Matter (More Than You Think)

Your mouth is poison; your mouth is wine.
–The Civil Wars

This morning, while reading some of the pushback I received from last night's post, I realized I may have been given to extremism. So I wanted to clarify my point. Here goes: Words matter.

Words Matter
Photo credit: Angie Garrett

Did you know the words you say have an effect on other people? Of course you did. So why do we still ignore that reality when we open our mouths?

It doesn't matter that you “didn't mean it” or that you were “just joking.” Sometimes, words just hurt. And we who use them have a responsibility to do so with an awareness of the impact they may have.

Every day, I learned this lesson when I carelessly say something to a friend — or worse, my spouse — that cuts the other person deep. Without realizing it, I can sometimes be brash and hurtful. Fortunately, my wife is showing me how I am responsible not only for my intentions but also for other people's perceptions of me.

Of course, you can't completely control other people's reactions, but you can be aware of how your language affects others.

In light of this, I want to make a few points about words:

  1. I am not a prude. I am a fan of words. I love words. I can even appreciate a well-placed expletive to make a point. What I don't like is when people are careless with words.
  2. This is not about political correctness (see Johnny Knoxville's take on the “R-word” and political correctness in this video). It's about respect.
  3. Context is important. There are occasions in which certain words are not offensive. If the veterinarian calls my dog a “b*tch“, I'm not going to gasp with shock and disdain. Even at appropriate tames, a well-placed curse word can have an effect.
  4. There are correct and incorrect ways to use any word. You should know what they are; choose wisely before opening your mouth or before writing that next ire-filled email.
  5. Habits matter. If I'm using a word privately, it may come out unintentionally in public settings. So there are some words that I just don't use. For me, this is a matter of discipline and self-control.
  6. Laziness with words is an epidemic. The fact that certain offensive words are so widespread in our culture reveals how tragically unoriginal we are. We could be a lot more creative in our communication, if we tried.

As a writer, this issue of using words is dear to me. Words are beautiful tools, but when improperly wielded, they can be dangerous weapons. Words do indeed matter. Let's take the time to learn to use them well.

Do words matter to you? Why or why? Share in the comments.