Original Posting: December 2, 2021, on SubStack
In 1868, the Cuyahoga, a river that runs through Cleveland, OH into Lake Erie, caught fire.
Yes, the river – A BODY OF WATER – went up in flames!
Worse yet, it burned 12 times in the hundred years between 1968 and 1969, causing damage (as fires do) all along the way.
How, you may ask, does a river catch fire? Well, it wasn’t the water, but the chemicals in it which fueled the flames – chemical waste from manufacturing businesses.
Sure, it would have been better had these businesses taken the time and effort (and money, perhaps) to dump their waste in a safer manner, but this was easier. And easier is better, right? Of course not. Hence the raging river fires.
Does our speech reflect our personality or is it the other way around? It’s easy to think of it as a chicken-or-the-egg scenario. But that’s just the thing, it’s easy. And easy isn’t always best, especially in this case.
Humans are incredible creatures. We can retain and intelligibly vocalize thousands of distinct words. In addition, we are able to organize those words with varied syntax to achieve the desired effect. In fact, our human brains are so advanced that speech usually comes naturally to most of us as we develop from babies to children and to adults.
Our usage of that speech, however, is a discipline (or lack thereof). We can take the tough road and focus on our speech – how we talk, what words we use, our emphasis, when to speak and when to remain silent, etc. – or we can take the easy road and simply spout out whatever, whenever. The latter would be akin to those devilish businesses polluting the Cuyahoga.
Let’s say we confronted one of those guys who dumped the crap into the river and asked him why he did it. His reply: “I dumped that crap into the river because it’s part of my personality. Nothing I can do about that!” Would we excuse the behavior? No. We would take him to task! We would want to city and state to penalize him and his fellow pollutants; hold them accountable for their actions.
Why? Because there are actions that are not reflective of personality but of intent and/or neglect. Polluting is not a character trait, it’s a crime.
Talk More Gooder
OK, so it’s better to speak better. Duh! But what exactly does that mean?
Contrast is a good thing. To see what is good, it’s beneficial to first examine what is bad. Below are some things to avoid in everyday communication:
- Destructive Criticism
- Throwing Barbs and Daggers
There may be more, of course, but this is a good list to start out with.
All of the above are easy to do and difficult to refrain from doing. For instance, sarcasm is a default reaction when someone tells us something we don’t want to hear but we have no logical retort.
Example: I fail to pay attention to my surroundings and allow a door to slam shut on someone behind me as I exit a public place.
Guy Behind Me: “Hey, what gives?”
Me: (In a mocking tone) “Hey, what gives? I’m so important that I need to have people hold the door open for me like I’m a king and if they don’t I cry! Waaa!”
Of course, this hasn’t happened, but you get the idea. The unspoken code of common courtesy dictates that I would hold the door open for the person behind me. Since I violated the code and had no logical reason (other than selfish neglect), I resort to sarcasm and mockery. This is a deflection; the not-so-clever attempt to remove the spotlight from me and my faults and an attempt to cast it onto another person, adding insult.
Would letting the door slam on someone and speaking foolishly be part of my personality? No. It would reflect my lack of awareness, self-discipline, and personal agency. The same goes for other items on the list.
F-Bombs and their Ilk
“But Jason,” you say, “profanity can be used to punctuate a point!” Agreed. But does it have to be used to punctuate the point? An obscenity may resonate with others and, quite often, may be excused in the circumstance; the proverbial “Oh, fudge” moment.
I like how they dealt with it in the movie. Ralphie had his soap-in-the-mouth moment, but that was all. He realized it wasn’t the best thing to do and the punishment fit the “crime” – no one was really hurt in the ordeal. We can psychoanalyze why Ralphie chose that word and his dad’s influence, but, for now, let’s agree that it’s not the best practice in real life.
Had Ralphie actually said, “Oh, fudge,” his dad would have known the sentiment and Ralphie would not have had to have a mouthful of Lifeboy soap. But, it’s folly to expect a child to have such wisdom. And, perhaps, it’s folly to expect an adult to have such wisdom, but many do and many others attempt it.
This all sounds preachy, I get it. And, no, I’m not above it all. This is constant labor on my part, especially knowing how prone I am to mouth off. Knowing how to act and actually act in that manner is challenging. Still, that’s not a license to do what is easy.
Our speech can be a curse or a blessing, damaging or refreshing. (And it can rhyme too!) What we put out into the world can be a toxic pollutant and, just because it’s out there, doesn’t mean it has evaporated. Our words can linger and ignite fires down the road.
And this is the flip side: our words be beneficial in the future; to us and others. Holding our tongue can allow an issue to pass without conflict. Resisting gossip adds deposits in our “trust” account with others. And the simple act of not throwing daggers has the incredible effect of not piercing someone’s soul.
Here’s a suggestion: this month, attempt a 10% improvement in the positivity of your communication. That’s not a lot. For every ten obscenities which you may normally spew, allow a mere nine to escape your lips. Make that tenth one a “fudge” and see what happens. It can turn a drama into a comedy, and we could all use a little less drama and a little more comedy in our lives.