I am incredibly professional when I am teaching or working with others. I measure my words and do my best not to say anything that might be disturbing to the people around me. I learned long ago that there are different levels of speaking. The formal level is the only one that is totally appropriate for a work environment. It is a way of talking that ensures that nobody will be offended by whatever is said. I was very good at leaving opinions, curse words, and insults out of my teaching vocabulary. My words would have passed muster in church and in front of my mother.
Each of us also has both an informal and an intimate manner of speaking. Informal conversations are more relaxed with less concern about using certain words or phrases that may be a bit brash. If we are wise we generally reserve such language for gatherings with acquaintances We feel freer to punctuate our comments with vernacular and jokes that might be misunderstood in a more formal setting. We use our most intimate language with those whom we most trust to understand our meanings and love us even when we sometimes say something that should have been left unsaid. In other words, if we are wise we will think about how to speak and what to say before we just blurt things out.
Social media has provided people with a forum for voicing their views with a certain level of anonymity. Sometimes in the heat of a moment we type our reactive thoughts and press return before we have even given ourselves time to think about what we have said. Opinionated battles ensue and sometimes friendships end on the battlefield of Facebook or Twitter. In retrospect we may regret that we were so hasty to voice our views, to argue with someone even knowing that we were never going to change their minds. We castigate ourselves for being so hasty but our words are already out there and we can’t take them back.
During the height of the Covid pandemic most of us were somewhat isolated. Families were homebound with parents and children using the Internet to work and attend classes. We learned to order things online and pickup groceries from our cars. It was a rather lonely time when nobody was having parties or meeting for lunch or dinner. We “met” each other on FaceTime or Zoom. We kept track of everyone’s status by phone, text, Facebook or Instagram. To say that society was a bit beside itself would be an understatement. We were literally fighting among ourselves over how best to react the the virus.
Sometimes the conversations became heated with emotions. I tried to calm myself whenever anyone became especially anxious and cantankerous. I knew that we were all suffering from the incredible stress that Covid had imposed on the entire world. With a presidential election added to the mix, tempers flared. Discussions sometimes devolved into name calling. Friends were unfriending friends. Too much that should not have been said or should have been said in a kinder way was being voiced or typed without thinking.
Along the way I lost a few people who were only casual friends but sadly I also lost someone whom I love deeply and have known since I was six years old. She was like the sister that I never had. We grew up together, raised our children together, celebrated and grieved together, took trips together. Through it all our bond only seems to grow but in one fell swoop I damaged the relationship with words that I used without a thought about how they might sound. I had misjudged how safe it was to be my anxious self, but I realized immediately that my words had done irreparable damage. There was no acceptable explanation or penance capable of healing the fracture.
I have gone back to that moment thousands of times. I have berated myself for being so hasty because I am a student of words and ways of expressing myself. I should have known better. I have grieved over the loss of someone who had been so special to me for most of my life. I have had to move on and simply accept the loss knowing that it did not have to happen if I had simply taken a deep breath and measured my words more carefully.
I wonder how many marriages have ended because of words. What we say is powerful and it sticks with people even if we do not mean what we have said. I had learned in my education classes that we all know the triggers that hurt people with whom we are very close. It is our responsibility not to use those comments to hurt them. I had been an almost religious follower of that concept but I spoke before considering my words on that day that I lost my friend. I have seen firsthand how hurtful that can be for the person on the receiving end of an ill measured comment.
I suppose that if we all took a deep breath before saying or writing something we might eliminate a great deal of sorrow in this world. The old saw that sticks and stone can break bones but words can never hurt is patently untrue. Sometimes what we say wounds more deeply than a slap in the face. We teach ourselves to never physically assault someone. We have to be as careful with our words as we are with our hands.