Before You Open Your Mouth
I am not 100% sure why this has happened (although I can guess), but over the course of the last month my tolerance for the things people say has dropped to nothing or less than nothing and is now resting comfortably with my tolerance for Berkeley drivers, off-key whistling, and my ex-girlfriend.
A great deal of things are said and written without the care and thought that ought to be required for any kind of communication.
We throw a lot of noise out there, and there are so many outlets and channels for this via the Internet that of course everything we think and say gets amplified and shared. Sadly, rather than making us more careful with what we send out into the world, it makes us almost criminally careless. Especially given that, as clever and as funny as we think we are, our audiences are thinking and feeling more than we can possibly imagine in a given day and some of that may be about what we have to say.
I am, of course, as guilty of this as anybody else. However, in some ways I am one or two steps ahead. My courses of study, both graduate and undergraduate, required knowledge of several languages: Latin, German, Anglo-Saxon, for example. You really don’t truly appreciate the nuances of language until you have spent an hour arguing about the translation of a single Latin word (in a medieval text, for those who will understand the increased difficulty inherent in that) with ten other brilliant scholars who are also attempting to bridge the gaps between cultural, linguistic, and historical understanding and feeling.
It really makes you think about the words you choose in your native language. Most words not only have multiple denotations, they also have those pesky connotations—not to mention any emotional ties we have to them. They also carry cultural weight.
I don’t require anybody to run out and learn Latin. However, if I could, I would give out the following homework assignment:
- For 24 hours, think through everything you say out loud and post on Facebook and Twitter and your blogs. Even if somebody merely asks you how you are doing, think for just a moment about how you want to answer and the words you are choosing. Also, always consider your audience.
- Before you ask a question, think for a couple of seconds about whether you already know the answer or can ascertain the answer from a quick look around. I don’t know about you guys, but I hate it when I ask a question, the answer to which I could have figured out in a moment if I had just been patient and thought it through.
- Look up the words you’ve been using in the last week or so and try to get a sense of what they really mean and what else they might mean. For extra credit, balance your thesaurus and dictionary skills to maximize your exposure to these nuances.
- Before you use even the most common terms, think about them—are they exclusive, insulting, intolerant? If so, why are you using them? And how?
- Every time you talk or post on line without thinking about it first, the 24 hour period begins again.
Now, go back and read my first paragraph. Think I thought that one through?
Well, I did. I’m not saying you can’t be insulting, gentle reader. I’m saying that when you are insulting you should aim to be 100% conscious that you are. That’s a nearly impossible goal, but not a bad one to attempt. (In fact, one of the benefits of being entirely aware that you are insulting people is that when you are really trying, your insults improve.)
Up to the challenge? I don’t even know if I am. But I’m going to try for 24 hours, starting today. If I am lucky, the third or fourth time will be the charm.