Mind Your Language

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There I was sitting cross-legged on the itchy-carpeted floor nervous and terrified, praying someone would speak to me. She, the likely equally anxious little girl sitting as uncomfortably next to me, looked me up, and down, and finally spoke to me. ‘Your skin is like poo’, she said. I cried. She shrugged.

She was right! My skin did, and still does, resemble the color of poo. At least that’s one way to describe it. Of course assuming that what she meant to say is my skin looks like poo. There is a slight chance she may have been trying to communicate, in some sort of confused attempt at politeness, that my skin literally resembles poo, in smell, texture, or who knows what else. But, let’s just agree to give her the benefit of the doubt (and I’m 99.99 percent sure I took a bath that morning).

I was six, just as she was. It was the first day of class one and we were in a classroom full of strange little kids, creatures that simultaneously looked all too familiar and alien to us. Our small yet spectacularly powerful six-year-old brains were about to begin the treacherous journey of primary school education. Or rather, the life-long soap opera of human relations, of friendships and heartaches, of incessantly learning and re-learning how to relate, and, if we’re lucky, how to communicate.

She didn’t know what she was saying; she was simply a six-year-old, nervous little girl. After all, back in nursery school we were taught the mantra: ‘Sticks and stones may break my bones but words can never hurt me’, so perhaps shame on me for not absorbing that lesson deeply enough. But, she was also a six-year-old girl; old enough to differentiate between colors, old enough to know and describe what poo looks like, and most definitely old enough to have experienced poo – the icky, smelly, yuckiest stuff that encompasses our bowel movements – many, many times.

Somehow, for whatever reasons, her six-year-old mind put two and two together; my dark brown skin didn’t look or seem like chocolate, or wood, or brown bread, or her teddy bear, or her daddy’s Caucasian hair, or even dirt. It seemed like poo.

But as I just said, she was six years old, hardly an age where one is expected to understand the implications of language and the impact of one’s vocabulary, let alone the intricacies of human-to-human communication. I’m sure if her 29-year-old self were to recall this incident I would be greeted with a heartfelt string of apologies, profuse, earnest remorse that can only be embraced.

Communicating is hard. Learning how to ‘speak good’ – not only how to choose the right words but to also know, through keen social awareness or a bunch of very good teachers, which are the right words to pick from. Combine that with the mental capacity required to string a whole lot of words into a semi-coherent sentence, and the necessary jolt of courage needed to vocalize said sentences and you have yourself a very complicated affair. A task that is way too easy to mess up, regardless of how much ‘experience’ one has.

Who hasn’t been there, done that, and said that? In the heat of frustration, immaturity, fear, rage, despair, pain, or plain old boredom, unfathomable words have exited from our vocal chords, scattered into the universe, never to return. ‘Wait, did I really say that?’ Our wiser, smarter selves proclaim, in hindsight. No, of course you didn’t mean it. You were angry, hurt, despondent, tired, intoxicated or, obviously just joking around.

Those words cannot be used to define you, staunch judgment should not, be placed on your character based on some vowels, syllables, conjunctions and sounds waves sloppily thrown together. Maybe you never even ‘learnt’ how to throw them together, or the people who taught you had no idea what they were talking about! The idea that you are, or could possibly be, a nasty cynic, a prejudiced adult, a sexist, ageist, homophobic, racist or any kind of -ist/-ic person is unfair and just flat out wrong.

I write this in response to a slew of public apologies from some very well known (at least here in the US) public figures. From dementia headed billionaires to young, corrupted pop stars, excessively calculated politicians to your run of the mill, middle-class school teachers; everyone, everywhere seems to be apologizing. For their words, for their “childish and inexcusable” language, for the “hurt caused”, or the inability to “explain some of the stupid, foolish uneducated words uttered.” They, or anyone, is never just sorry, one is “deeply, truly, remorseful and heartbroken” by one’s own actions. Which may very well be the case; I’m not trying to patronize said apologies, they may (or may not) be entirely sincere; who hasn’t felt deeply and truly remorseful at some point?

And one has to account for the nature of a public apology, the inherent public relations strategy involved which may (or may not) override one repentant sentiments. But the fact is, whether one is speaking to an audience of millions, saying sorry is the easy part. Actually meaning it is where things get tricky. And forget trying to explain yourself, trying to defend your character or justify that your words had no actual meaning. You can say that you “said a disgusting word that does not at all reflect how I feel about any people”, but it kind of does, or did in that moment in time.

According to Compton’s encyclopedia, the total number of words in the English language is around 750,000. Of that number, us 21stcentuary English speaking beings tend to use a whopping 500 words to 2,000 at the most. That is 0.06 percent – 0.25 percent of the entire English language repertoire. Hhmm… The other thing to note is that in just over 3000 words that can be used to describe various emotions there are roughly twice as many negative words as positive words. To be exact, 1,051 words for positive emotions and 2,286 for negative emotions.

Maybe we have the deck stacked against us. We’re not able to recall enough words and most of the ones that we do know happen to be negative. Perhaps some people are just born more eloquent, thoughtful and articulate, while the rest of us have to learn, the hard way, how to get there. Or maybe we should all be allowed a certain amount of ‘oops’ occurrences where we get to use one of our few ‘get-out-of-jail’ free cards. Or, perhaps, there are no excuses. If we have the intellect and social awareness to understand what a word means, then we should be entirely responsible for how it is used or misused.

Is there a correct answer? You decide. I know that I resonate with and like to keep the late great Maya Angelou’s words about words close to my heart:

“Some day we’ll be able to measure the power of words. I think they are things. They get on the walls. They get in your wallpaper. They get in your rugs, in your upholstery, and your clothes, and finally in to you.”

Maya Angelou

 Published in July 2014

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