When words matter…

When do words matter? Probably not all the time. I can actually think of quite a lot of situations where words are unnecessary, rather disturbing or even completely misplaced. But most situations that include human interaction usually require the use of words.

Words have immense power. They can lead to arguments and fights, sorrow and hatred. They can result in friends breaking up, couples falling apart, neighbors declaring war, children running away from home and employees being dismissed. But they can also create miracles; they can unite and reunite, bridge gaps, solve misunderstandings. They can inspire, create compassion and understanding and bring people together in love and friendship.


By choosing the right words at the right moment we have the power to control the outcome of our interactions with others. Unfortunately not many people are really good at this, which is not really surprising considering all the different factors that can determine the impact of the words used. Not only can words often mean several things depending on the context, but a word can take on a completely different feel based on how it is used (written or spoken, yelled or whispered…), the chosen tone of voice (formal, friendly, aggressive, loving, sad, arrogant…) and the medium used to express it (face to face conversation, telephone, letter, Facebook, SMS…).


All of these factors, and others as well, call for a thorough assessment of the situation and the context at hand before transforming your thoughts into words. And this has to happen quickly, since most conversations – except for the written ones of course – do not usually offer the opportunity to take a short break each time a response is expected from you.


Still, even if you’re really good at rapidly coming up with what you believe is the right formulation, entirely suitable for the situation and the context, your words can have an impact completely different from what you intended. Because it’s not just the person uttering the words but also the person hearing them who plays a big part in the actual perception.


Recipients often have a whole spectrum of filters to choose from when it comes to the interpretation of words received. Knowledge of the language/dialect, education, age, profession and social background are obvious ones, but they aren’t nearly as important as  the filters that are much harder to distinguish, like childhood memories, high school traumas, family feuds or even something as simple as today’s mood.


Also the relationship between the recipient and the originator of the message is of huge importance when it comes to getting that message right. Are they friends, lovers, former lovers, business partners, competitors, relatives, strangers, or enemies? Do they trust each other, do they like each other, do they detest one another, do they go way back or have they just met?


When you begin to consider what it actually takes to choose the right words that will be perceived in the way you intended, you really start wondering how it’s possible that we’re not at war with each other all of the time!


Or are we? Well, maybe (hopefully!) not all of the time. But based on a non-scientific, informal scan of my social environment I must unfortunately come to the conclusion that quite a few misunderstandings arisemany of them unnecessary and most of them avoidable if the persons involved thought more carefully about their chosen words and tone of voice.


I’m probably way too optimistic, but what would happen if we all added one more New Year’s resolution to the list (before it’s too late) and made sure that from today onwards, we chose our words and channels a bit more carefully? It probably wouldn’t solve all of our problems, but I’m pretty sure the world would instantly be a much pleasanter place to live in!


// Mirjam