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Susan Smalley, Ph.D.

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Words Are Like Living Organisms

Posted: 03/14/2012 8:00 am

A few days ago, I went to meet a business consultant in NYC. He sent me an email to meet him at a backdoor entrance of a well-known company so we could enter before it opened to the public. I easily found the front entrance, but behind it there was no address that matched the one he had sent.

I phoned him to figure out where to meet. I began, "We came to the front of the building on 49th St. and..."

Before I could finish he interrupted, remarking "Sweetheart, if you had listened to what I TOLD you about not going to the front entrance," to which I interrupted and said, "If you had let me finish my sentence you would have heard me say that we had walked to the back but couldn't find the street address."

I was offended at his "sweetheart" and condescending remark. How quickly words can offend. Perhaps he only meant to clarify, but his impatience and ease at calling me "sweetheart" and jumping to the conclusion that I couldn't read his email just made me angry.

As a 50+ female, I don't need a lecture on listening. I am sure I've listened to many, many more males than he ever will listen to females. I grew up before the feminist movement when listening was a prime expectation for girls and women. Tip in the post-feminist era? Reserve "sweetheart" and other sorts of remarks for a loved one and no one else.

As my irritation subsided, it reminded me of the value of mindful speech -- male or female. To be mindful of speech means to notice your intention before you speak and to listen with full attention. There are certainly times when I've said things I regret. My male colleague was apparently ignorant of the impact his comments had (despite a pretty cold shoulder from me) or didn't feel an apology was needed. My first inclination was to not work with him again, second to write this blog, and third to forgive and forget.

How often might we say things to others that are interpreted in a negative fashion? Alan Watts considered words to be like living organisms, spreading like a virus -- helping or harming as they go on their way.

In the busyness of day-to-day life we often forget this aspect of mindfulness, yet communication is the centerpiece of social interactions -- whether in speech, Twitter or email. Intentional silence (an hour or two or even a day) can be a powerful way to remedy mindless speech. It heightens awareness of the range of words spewed out day-to-day that aren't really necessary, that clutter our minds, and that get in the way of listening.

Perhaps what is best is to have helpful reminders like this incident. My husband offered to remind our colleague that 1. I have a Ph.D. and that means I'm smart, 2. If he hadn't noticed, I'm a feminist, and 3. Interruptions are rude (unless as my husband pointed out it's me interrupting him, which I tend to do all the time!). After laughing out loud, I decided to forgive and forget -- and maybe to pass this blog along to him someday.

First published on PsychologyToday March 9, 2012

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