Wounding Words

Those of you who visit Mannersmith only in cyberspace may be surprised to learn that our office is located in Salem, Massachusetts. Salem is about 18 miles northeast of Boston. During October, Salem is in her full glory. Witches, warlocks, ghosts, goblins and hundreds of tourists descend on our city culminating in the celebration of Halloween. You may be familiar with Salem due to the witch trials that occurred in 1692. At the time, mass hysteria overcame common sense and people were killed based upon hearsay. Clearly, words can have major repercussions. The children's ditty says "sticks and stones may break our bones, but words will never harm us." However we all know this is not true. Words can hurt. As adults in a civil society, we must be cognizant of how our words affect others. Below are three examples of how our words can highlight ignorance, perpetuate stereotypes and distract from what we are saying.

A few years ago, I was interviewed by a reporter from a Southern newspaper about Halloween. When we finished the call, I pulled out my fountain pen and cotton-fiber stationery to send off a thank you note. After finishing the body of the note, and still thinking of the season, I wrote "I hope you have a spooky Halloween!" I signed the letter and sealed the envelope. But something in the back of my head prevented me from sending it. I remembered that while the word "spooky" meant one thing in Salem, Mass two weeks before Halloween, that the same word had a different context and meaning in the south. I ripped up the thank you note and began again.

A few months ago, I was reading a local paper and was thrilled to see an acquaintance's name in print. This person had recently published a book and it was mentioned in an article on area authors. This acquaintance is a seasoned and well traveled professional, so I was startled to read that this person used an anti-Semitic slur when referring to the sales potential of the book. While I am sure this person regrets using the comment as a newspaper quote, I wonder if there is regret for having the comment as a clearly familiar phrase.

A few days ago, I was listening to my favorite radio station. The host was interviewing a colleague about reporting in Iraq. The war reporter had been embedded in a unit that had recently taken an injured soldier to an Army Hospital. Despite the appropriate paperwork, the reporter was stopped by an MP and then detained for hours by security contactors. The story was riveting -- I felt his consternation -- and I was completely empathic until he described the female MP he had dealt with as "hysterical". Hysterical? The word disengaged me from his story as I wondered how he would have described a male MP who was yelling at him. Was she merely yelling, or was she truly suffering from an uncontrollable emotion due to her womb? I know the reporter was annoyed he was detained and angry for losing the trail of the soldier's story. But detaining non-military personnel, and occasionally yelling, is part of an MP's job. For the reporter to add a sexist insult as part of his interview was unnecessary and distracting.

While we can not, with 100% accuracy, prevent others from feeling the sting of our words, there certainly are some steps we can take to minimize such situations.

First, do not use racial, religious, ethnic or gender slurs in private. If you eliminate the distasteful vocabulary from your everyday conversation, there is less chance something unbecoming will "slip" out inappropriately in public.

Second, educate others. When you hear friends, family, colleagues and co-workers using slurs, address the issue. Privately speak with the individual. Ask them if they remember using the phrase and if they know the history, meaning or innuendo behind it. Then allow them to save face with something such as "I know you and am sure you never meant it that way, but I would hate for anyone else to think less of you."

Lastly, remember that words can wound. Even when avoiding slurs and profanity, what we say can hurt others. What we say and the language we use says a lot about us, our intelligence and our character. Be sure to present yourself well.

Three hundred years after the Salem Witch Trials, there are certainly many lessons we can learn. Words are powerful. Hopefully this October the only scary words you will hear are "trick or treat," and that even those scary words will be followed shortly by the magical words "please" and "thank you."