My youngest son wears hearing aids, he’s not profoundly deaf, but his condition makes it hard for him to hear. And I find it very frustrating when he gets disciplined at school for ‘not listening.’ What the teacher needs to say is that he hasn’t followed the instruction given, not that he didn’t hear it in the first place. It’s a subtle difference, but an important one in my eyes and one where words aren’t being used as effectively as they could.
Being a writer I’m often very careful with the words I chose to put on the page and the order in which I write them down. I’ve never been a writer who has trouble with having a novel that is too long, it’s always been the other way around, but that doesn’t mean I’m always concise and effective with what I write, and I’m not always so careful with the words that come out of my mouth, however, nor the ones with which I use to talk to myself. You know, the ones that say you’re not good enough, or that you’ve probably offended someone without meaning to, in fact, you definitely have.
Recently I have had many conversations about effective use of language. I went on a mental health training day where a midwife told us that they are no longer allowed to call their hospital department a ‘delivery suite,’ for they are not delivering pizza. It now has to be called a ‘birthing suite.’ And then I spoke to a friend who knew someone whose daughter developed an eating disorder in her teens. As a child the girl had been tall for her age and everyone had always commented on how ‘big’ she was. She took this to mean fat. I’ve also spoken to many teachers who know not to say a child is naughty, but what they are doing is naughty.
If we thought about it too much we’d never speak again for fear of damaging our children or unintentionally upsetting someone, but where we can I’m beginning to think what we say and how we say it is more important than we think. We need to be mindful of our words when speaking to others or ourselves, or when writing a novel or article, and even when tweeting and blogging. For these are all places where meaning can easily be ambiguous if words are not chosen carefully. They can do more damage than the author ever intended, I should know, I’ve been that author.
Over the last few months I’ve been very focused on using effective language – I’ve been editing my first novel and I’ve been having therapy, mainly for OCD, and anxiety linked to my sons’ medical conditions. Both of these things have been primarily focused on the words I use and how they can be misinterpreted, or aren’t clear enough, or are downright unhelpful. I’ve learnt to cut sentences that start with…
But what if….’
‘I ought to…’
Nothing good has ever come from me thinking things beginning with those words. They lead me to catastrophise and feel guilty. They make me more fearful. They offer no comfort, only criticism. And in noticing these words and making subtle changes I am learning to cope with situations better, although some better than others, it’s taking time. It works in writing too. Changing the negative into a positive can make a sentence more powerful. Instead of describing a character by showing how they’d never behave I now write about what they do. There’s always a more powerful verb than don’t, shouldn’t or can’t. I saw a TED talk recently about how different languages have their own nuances, and how negative the English language can be without us even thinking. For example, have you ever heard someone say that they broke their leg? It’s the way we speak, the way it’s been for a long time, putting blame on ourselves. In other languages if you said, ‘I’ve broken my leg,’ then the listener would think you took a hammer to yourself and did it on purpose. Generally when you break a bone it’s an accident. You didn’t break it, it broke. You didn’t spill the milk, it spilt. It was an accident. Blame need not be apportioned.
I’ve also been more observant about how I am spoken to, and how I react to words that come at me. If I assume they’re going to be hurtful then of course they generally are, whereas if I choose to look behind the words themselves and think about the place they are coming from, then that usually changes my perception of them. I’m learning to let go of the words that say more about the person saying them than they do about me. It can all be so subjective, a bit like fiction you could say. Best to not leave anything open to misinterpretation in my opinion, but then that can cause issues to. Some people really don’t like hearing the truth.
But overall I’m learning, in both my editing and my life, to focus only on the important stuff. The meaningful bits. When editing I need to get my point across as quickly and clearly as possible, removing as many unnecessary words as I can. And therapy is proving that I need to do the same with my internal voice. Basically I need to cut out the crap and just…Get. To. The. Point.