I worked for more than 20 years as a legal assistant. Words were very important in everything I did at work, from e-mails and letters to legal documents. Words were carefully chosen to convey the intended message and to avoid misunderstanding or uncertainty whenever possible. We also worked hard to avoid “legalese” whenever possible so our communications were more respectful of our clients.
I soon realized how much my training and focus on the right words carried over into my daily life outside of work. I often found myself saying, “Words matter – they have a meaning”, especially whenever I felt my words or those of someone else were used carelessly or inappropriately.
As children we learned that “sticks and stones can break my bones but words can never hurt me”; as adults, we know that is not true. We may think words are inconsequential, but they are not. Our words do matter. They have meaning, and often the meaning is nuanced by the experience of the person using the words or the person hearing/reading the words.
I learned how often the words I spoke or thought about myself worked against me. For example, instead of saying something I had done or said was “stupid” or “dumb”, I learned to use “silly” because it sounded and felt less demeaning. It made me think about how often I said “stupid” or “dumb” to other people about something they said or did, and I worked to change my habit. I came to use “wounded” where I used to say “broken”, or to use “unhealed” where I used to say “damaged”, when I was referring to myself or another person who was struggling with emotional, mental or spiritual challenges. My reasoning was that wounds would heal, but broken or damaged things could not always be fixed.
A popular Christian song, Words, by Hawk Nelson, speaks of the power of our words to build up or tear down. Our words can affirm or acknowledge someone’s lived experience, or they can dismiss or minimize it. Our words can be used to ask for information to clarify or to better understand, or they can be used to let others know we believe we already know everything. Our words can recognize and uphold the dignity of others, or they diminish it.
In the Gospel of John, Jesus is referred to as “the Word”: In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. . . . And the Word became flesh and made his dwelling among us. . . (Jn. 1:1, 14). What if, before we spoke or wrote anything, we asked God to dwell in our words. How would the words we use in conversation or on social media change? How might that focus change the ways we speak to or about people of different races, religions, or cultures, or even just people with different perspectives or opinions than ours? May all our words be life-giving.
– Marge Lindell