COMMENTARY: Unkind Words Are Weapons 752.2

With four teenage daughters, I frequently find myself correcting, disciplining, or simply protesting unnecessary and unkind comments certain to anger or wound a sister and evoke counterattacks that fill the air with nastiness.

Hoping to get them to think before they speak in the future, I often ask, “What did you expect to accomplish by that remark?” and “Did it make things better or worse?” It rarely makes a difference.

It’s as if their instinct to express anger or utter sarcasm, accusations, and complaints is too strong to allow for wise strategies like “Think before you speak” to operate.

It disappoints and frustrates me that my children are often unkind to one another and so quick to make foolish comments that have no constructive purpose. Yet it’s even more troublesome when adults engage in the same senseless and destructive behavior.

It may be a husband’s unfiltered remark about his wife’s smothering style, a wife’s dig about her husband’s lack of energy, a parents’ comment, “That’s why you have no friends” or ‘Why can’t you be more like your brother?” or an aunt’s unwanted advice, “If you want to get married, lose weight.”

Often the content of a remark is objectively objectionable and they never should have been uttered, but tone, timing, or setting can make even seemingly harmless observations hurtful.

We have to remember that words are weapons, sometimes weapons of mass destruction.

Verbal assaulters may defend their unguided missiles with claimed innocence: “I didn’t mean it that way” when the real question is “How was the remark likely to be received?”

Another lame excuse is “I was just telling the truth,” without considering whether that truth needed to be said. Honesty does not preclude tact. It’s not a sin to have an unexpressed thought.

We may not always be able to shield ourselves from the darts and arrows of inconsiderate or mean-spirited folks, but we can resolve to be more thoughtful in our own communications.

We can be more kind more consistently. We can follow the Golden Rule and a few other age-old wisdoms like: “Think before you speak” and “If you can’t say anything nice, don’t say anything at all.”

This is Michael Josephson reminding you that character counts.


Comments 8

  1. Hi Mr. Michael Josephson:

    I work for United Way of Ventura County. I have conducted many presentations over the past 12 years. My message must count to the people I speak to and usually, I accomplish this with many years of sensible shared information about all of our programs that focus on education, income and health and advancing the common good, being honest with all and leaving my audience with a philosophical thought at the end to firm up what I have shared with everyone which is:
    “Be a better person, not a bitter person. Reach out whenever you can to do some good for others.”

    I have always enjoyed your commentaries about life with character and integrity and hope to continue learning from you with my other endeavors.

    Wishing you continued success with good health and wish you the best of holidays. Happy Chanukah.


    Eve Liebman

  2. A freind of mine is in the habit of saying she is brutally honest. I reminded her the other day that even though she is being honest, she is also being brutal. Kids are cruel, family tears at each other more than they dare to friends or strangers. It isn’t right, it just is.

  3. I am the director if a scholarship program for young women and my motto is “Be positive or be quiet”. Thumper’s mother was right, “If you can’t say something nice, don’t say anything at all”.

  4. Good Morning Mr. Josephson,

    Thank you for the reminder that the “tone, timing and setting” of our comments matters! I too, have a teenage daughter who seems express anger and sarcasism far too often; however, when I mention that her words are rude or mean, she denies any intention of disrespect or meanness.

    I’ve wondered how much her constant texting as opposed to actually conversing has to do with this issue…it’s almost as if she is too impatient to “wait” for the right words, and definitely too rushed to think before speaking.

    Sadly, unkind words are not limited to teenagers as you mentioned. We adults are often guiltly as well. As a high school counselor I see these effects on children every day. Way too many kiddos feel that their mom or dad doesn’t love or care about them.

    Thank you sincerely for your commentaries. Dorothy Wright

    1. Thanks Dorothy – for what it’s worth i think the impatience, rudeness and sullenness that most parents of teens experience is much more a function of hormones than texting or other extrinsic behaviors. I’ve read a ton on this trying to develop my own strategies and it seems that in the end, I just need to be patient and understanding and not take what they say and do personally. It’s still important to draw lines but what’s worked best for me sometimes is to just think they are in a state of temporary insanity. I’m assured it will pass. Parents need strength but we need to realize how hard adolescence really is for our kids. They suffer every day.

      1. Thank you for your response…of course you are right. I have to remind myself that even though my daughter is a sophomore in hs, she really is still just a kid! Recalling unkind remarks said to my own mother with regret now that she is gone, is probably the catalyst for wanting my daughter to understand how powerful and lasting words can be.

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