Words Build Stuff Between Us
Words destroy stuff we’ve built
We all know this, don’t we? It’s perfectly obvious.
If words were money (words are definitely not money), we would be aware of our spending to inform or persuade or entertain. And just like people who make a hobby of “going shopping,” spending our word budget every day would be just another normal piece of everyday life for a U.S. citizen (or “consumer,” as business has renamed humans).
And that is actually how words work: We spend them.
With words we buy influence. We give some bit of knowledge or direction to someone else and win something in return. Some bit of psychic collateral. With words we buy context: we proclaim this or that in response to a situation at home or at work. Sometimes those around us agree with our context-setting assessment. Sometimes they don’t. Hint: if you want more people to agree with you, become the boss. Authority has a way of bringing believability with it, whether or not it is earned.
How we spend our words is worth thinking about. For many of us conversation seems instinctual. We say this in response to that. We inform, persuade, entertain with a joke. We do most of this without making conscious choices about our wordly-intentions.
But what if we did think of how we spend our words? What if we invested our words to accomplish some end? What if we invested our words with meaning—which is to say, what if we said things that were pulled from the well of what is important to us? That would make us vulnerable, of course. It would also be a platform for growth. Because when we say what is important, we learn something about ourselves and often a meaningful conversation can follow. The kind of conversation that has a chance of touching us deeply.
If you’ve not read Mistakes Were Made (But Not by Me), now is a good time. Tavris and Aronson have been referred to frequently as the Rolling Stone article on rape at the University of Virginia and news reader Brian Williams were found to have amped up their stories beyond anything resembling truth. Tavris and Aronson talk about cognitive dissonance and how we have such a hard time living with ourselves when our inconsistencies and personal malpractices appear—so we just change the story to coddle our precious psyches. The authors also demonstrate how memory gets built and rebuilt as we change stories:
Memories create our stories, but our stories also create our memories. Once we have a narrative, we shape our memories to fit into it.
–Carol Tavris and Elliot Aronson, Mistakes Were Made (But Not by Me), (Orlando: Harcourt, Inc, 2007) 77
I am advocating for conscious use of words, and for filling those words with stuff that is important to us—scary as that is. I see this as the opposite of small talk. I do, however, acknowledge that small talk is the precursor to big talk.
In my dream world, we use words to constantly build stuff between us rather than destroying relationships by purposely misunderstanding and showing we are better/righter/fitter/stronger/groovier.
Image credit: Kirk Livingston