Words can be powerful — for good or ill

This one has been a difficult problem in our 60-year marriage and still comes up at times. I take spoken words literally where my wife means them figuratively most of the time. In anger people may say, "I want to kill you!" or "Why don’t you just kill me!" These are extreme examples, but they do occur in moments of anger. I have a difficult time with this. I also realize that I may think these things at such times but don’t verbalize them. I think a lot of people have this same problem. Often, the people that think these things and don’t verbalize them are more dangerous than those who say them, especially when these thoughts go on for a long time.

— B.V.D., Las Vegas


What is the one thing that supremely distinguishes Homo sapiens from every other life form on planet Earth? We talk! Other animals communicate, yes. But only humans talk. We have language. It behooves us never to forget that words are very, very powerful.

In ancient Hebrew, the verb dabar can mean "to say" or "to do." This reveals a cogent Hebrew worldview: Words have creative power. "And God said, ‘Let there be light,’ " … and sure enough, there is light. In the Hebrew creation myth, God speaks creation into being.

Words can change things. Change us. Forever alter relationships. Inspire heroic behavior or discourage it. Create goodness or gestate evil.

Remember the childhood rhyme? "Sticks and stones may break my bones, but words will never hurt me." This little idiom ranks somewhere in the Top Five on my list of Accepted Wisdom Sayings That Aren’t True. Words can and do regularly break things, often they break things that take much longer to heal than bones. In some cases, things that never heal.

Juliet, when pondering how provocative were the respective surnames of Romeo’s family and her own, said, "What’s in a name? That which you would call ‘a rose,’ by any other name would smell as sweet."

Well, Juliet, technically that’s true, but you’re missing the point. If I call a rose "a stinkpot," what will change is not the rose! Rather, the way I apprehend the rose will change, perhaps even to the point where I can no longer enjoy or even notice its sweet aroma.

Words matter. That’s why it’s against the law to walk into a crowded theater and yell "Fire!" Why the TSA takes all jokes seriously at airport passenger screening. Why I tell parents that, when their teenager threatens suicide, their job is not first trying to figure out whether the teen is serious or "just trying to get our attention." Nope. In a healthy family, it’s against the rules to threaten to die — or to kill — as a strategy for getting your needs met. In principle.

Words are powerful. That’s why I disagree with you that people who don’t verbalize homicidal/suicidal ideation are more dangerous than those who do. Nope. I started my behavioral health career in crisis intervention, where the first and most important rule was, "What people can say, they can do."

When I’m useful as a therapist, one of the most common ways I’m useful is to encourage patients to talk differently about themselves. I regularly call into question the veracity, the accuracy and the fairness of the words my patients use to describe who they are. Same for couples counseling. Making intentional shifts in language helps reconstruct relationships. Re-create them. Heal them.

I enjoy colorful hyperbole. Ever listen to the way guy friends talk to each other? Men bond through ceremonial derision and humiliation of each other. I love satire. Teasing is one of the ways healthy families express love, trust and affection. I can roll with the occasional foul mood or "having a bad day." And I assume that, in a fit of anger, people can, do and will say ugly things.

But if thriving relationships matter to us, then, if/when we do say something ugly, violent or threatening in anger, I also assume that we have a responsibility to account. To clean up the mess we made with our damaging rhetoric.

If you speak to me in ways scornful, belittling, degrading or contemptuous, I’m not willing to normalize relations with you until and unless you are willing to own your words and repair the relationship. And saying "I meant that figuratively" does not constitute a repair. I don’t want to be close to people who speak to me this way.

I can’t be. And I won’t.

Originally published in View News, Jan. 11, 2011.

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