by Doug Carpenter


What’s the Good Word?

Generally speaking, people are discouraged from speaking in generalities — although as that statement right there demonstrates, not too many of us take the advice very seriously. But then, we can hardly be blamed for that, especially considering how much of it we receive over the course of our lives — which is almost always more than we want but rarely as much as we need.

Being largely unsolicited, most of it has ended up, as you might expect, being totally ignored — particularly the parts we got from our parents when we were adolescents. I mean, it was our parents, right? How much could they possibly have known? [As it turned out, quite a bit.]

But also knowing, as they obviously did, that we weren’t about to ask them for their opinion on — let’s be honest — anything, they had little choice but to share the benefit of their experience with us voluntarily and hope for the best. Reflecting back, however, on the parental wisdom my Mom and Dad faithfully if vainly tried to pass down to me, I do recall one interesting insight that somehow survived.

It was, apparently, something my mother thought the know-it-all little motormouth she was raising needed to hear as often as possible [...or as often as she could get a word in edgewise.] And that was to “Always choose your words carefully.”

In light of the fact that I grew up to be someone who made his living choosing words, that advice was both impressively far-sighted and sweetly ironic. I do have to admit, though, that I now wish I’d taken her carefully-chosen words more to heart. In fact, in a world where civil discourse has been forcibly displaced by uncivilized discord, I think my Mom’s advice now bears greater relevance than ever for all of us.

If you asked me to characterize modern life with a single word, I’d have to say that we live today in a world defined by “more.” [Too often, unfortunately, it’s just more of the same stuff we already have more than enough of, but who’s going to turn down more “stuff?”]

Still, we do have more choices, but also more challenges. More complexity, but more of the confusion that invariably comes with it. And unquestionably more confrontation, and the frequent — and likely-as-not unwelcome — consequences it invites. Personal. Professional. Political. Parental. Take your pick — and then take your best shot at dealing with them.

But you should probably be prepared for it to take a lot more time and effort than you might’ve expected it to, since we now also find ourselves making more attempts to communicate that simply fail to connect. In short, we’re all saying more than we ever have but understanding what’s being said even less. And worst of all, we seem to be having more difficulty every day understanding why.

You won’t find the reason in situations like, say, the kind faced by people wrestling with global crises while speaking — not surprisingly — different languages. Nor can it be blamed on the semantic static that nearly drowns out the voices of even the most vocal locals while they’re attempting to convince the other they’re wrong in what’s supposed to be the same language.

Actually, it’s a lot simpler — and scarier — than that. It’s that words — many words, the list of which just keeps growing — appear to no longer mean what they used to mean or even what we thought they meant. And the width of the potential cultural chasms this uncertainty threatens to create between us is staggering.

Did you know that of the more than 7,000 different languages now spoken on Earth, some of them literally DO NOT CONTAIN corresponding words for many basic but critical things and ideas common to other cultures and included in their peoples’ native vocabularies?

Arabic, for example, does have a term for what English-speaking western culture would call a “win-win” outcome. But surprisingly, it has no word for reaching such a “compromise” through struggle and disagreement. So as hard as it might be to imagine a diplomatic “happy ending” suddenly appearing effortlessly, such a basic vocabulary deficiency could make just describing the potentially rocky path to achieving one even more difficult than traveling it.

But while the dramatic international disparity between some languages might seem to explain a lot, you’d think “minds” would have less trouble “meeting” on home soil. But you would unfortunately be wrong, thanks in large part to the remarkable advances we’ve made in the ways we communicate — from e-mails and cell phones to texting and tweeting, and the arguably unintended consequences those changes have invited.

Since we’ve been playing this “word” game with a handful of vintage advice cards, let me deal you one more [ the top of the deck, I promise. I’m no card shark.] But these days, the waters of communication are certainly more shark-infested than ever. Which is why it’s probably a good time to update another old adage — the one that warns you to “believe half of what you read and none of what you hear.”

That’s because trusting the information you receive now requires more than just keeping your guard up when reading, watching or listening to the messages that keep buzzing, beeping and jingalingalinging their way into your consciousness. You can’t simply take words at face value anymore when they so easily could have more than one face.

Or, if someone only reaches you through words magically transmitted onto your screen, with the exception of maybe a couple of those sometimes-creepy but often-suggestive little emojis [...which people recklessly use even when they’re not really sure what they mean...], there’ll be no facial expression or tone of voice at all to help you discern the sender’s intent. So how do you sort all of this out?

Well, since it’s the month we celebrate mothers, perhaps I’ll offer you just one more of the apparently more-memorable-than-I-gave-them-credit-for life tips I picked up from mine. “Consider the source,” she would always say. I suppose it was her way of teaching me that everyone has an agenda — some of them driven by positive motives, while the others? Not so much.

And as much as I love words, one thing I definitely do not love is people who intentionally and disrespectfully manipulate the meanings of inherently “good” ones for malicious and self-serving purposes. Frankly, they make me want to use some of the — you know — “bad” ones I’ve picked up here and there over the years.

Of course, if I did, I’m pretty sure my Mom would have a few colorful ones of her own to say to me about it. [And by now, she’d expect me to know better than that.]

© 2021 Doug Carpenter

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