Avoiding Unkind Words

People don’t always remember what you say or even what you do, but they always remember how you made them feel. – Maya Angelou

When I had four teenagers

at home, I frequently found myself correcting, disciplining, or simply protesting unnecessary and unkind, and often, downright mean comments certain to anger or wound a sister, brother, mother or me.

Hoping to get them to think before they speak in the future, I often asked, “What did you expect to accomplish by that remark?” and “Did it make things better or worse?” It rarely mads a difference at the time but as they grew older I’ve heard them echo that important test of propriety and decency.

It’s not just teenagers, many of us have to found the 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 were often unkind to one another and so quick to make foolish comments that had no purpose other than to injure. 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.”

Some remarks are patently and indefensibly objectionable and they never should have been uttered, but tone, timing, or setting can make even seemingly harmless comments hurtful. Inadvertent injuries hurt just as much and we all have an obligation to be more careful – slow to say things that can easily be construed as hurtful and quicker to sincerely apologize when we discover a harmful effect.

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

Verbal assaulters often defend their unguided missiles with claimed innocence: “I didn’t mean it that way” or by blaming the wounded person for being too sensitive – “it was just a joke.” A more accountable response would be to as oneself “How the remark might be received?” And, if one is honest with themselves they will admit that there is no construction of their words that would be the least bit funny (the real test of a joke).

Another lame excuse is “I was just telling the truth,” without considering whether that truth needed to be told and whether it needed to be told by that person at that time in that way. Honesty does not preclude tact. It’s not a sin to have an unexpressed thought.

Finally, claims that “she started it” or other versions of self-defense do not justify meanness. Do unto others as you would have them do unto you, not as others have done unto you. Just as its still wrong to  lie to a liar or cheat a cheater it is wrong to be nasty and unkind to those who have treated you badly. I’m reminded of the observation of a turn-of-the-century politician who responded to insults by saying, “Sir, I will treat you as a gentleman, not because you are one, but because I am one.”

Maybe the age-old advice is still applicable: “If you can’t say anything nice, don’t say anything at all.”

This is Michael Josephson reminding you that character counts.

Comments 7

  1. Thank-you for the latest commentary “Unkind Words are Weapons”. Your thoughts and comments are valuable and important. I appreciate each newsletter and helpful tidbits to help keep me positive and moving forward.
    Thank-you

    No need to reply.

  2. What Will Matter | COMMENTARY 922.2: Unkind Words Are WeaponsI have a teenage son and daughter. From time to time when I have had to express my dismay at the unkind and hurtful behavior they were engaging in, I have said that if one of them saw the other being spoken to or treated in this way by someone other than them, would they accept that? Would they like that ? I asked my son once if he would like his sister to be called names and belittled by another boy and he cried. I asked my daughter if she would like to hear one of her girlfriends say what she just said to her brother and she rang to him and gave him a hug and said “I’m sorry, I didn’t mean it that way.”I walked away and heard her brother say to her “if you don’t mean it, than don’t say it, I’m sorry too”. Don’t worry , this has been repeated a couple of times now and I suspect it will again!
    The adults, well that’s a minefield and having been there and done that, I have witnessed incredible hurt and suffering that unkind words have led to. The like of which has compelled me to speak kindly and with sincerity from an early age. Words are weapons and if used as such leave trauma and self esteem issues that can take some a lifetime to deal with. The history books show us this , as does science and medicine. I will continue to be who I am and never give up on delivering the message that kindness and love serves you and everyone far better than the reverse. Thank you and good luck with the four girls. I had three sisters and two brothers!

  3. The entire time that I read Michael’s excellent take, I could not think of those I know that think Political Correctness is just BS and wrong. I know a lot of people like that. Those that hate political correctness really want to say what they feel, regardless of how what they say may be taken with great hurt or anger, which leads to what constructive value? Agree or disagree?

  4. I’m not going to say anyone here is hypocritical, but this website has blasted out countless commentaries that there is no such thing as “white lies”. We allegedly must adhere to the brutal truth, no matter how unkind.

    I don’t agree. “Honesty” and kindness often work at cross-purposes. I vote for kindness.

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