Dodging Word Mines
Updated: Jul 26
I cannot remember a time when the writing we put out into the world was met with such intense scrutiny and loaded meaning as it is today. Some words have become so charged, we can no longer use them in casual parlance: Pride. Privilege. Black. White. Red. Blue. Lives. Mask. Great. Identity. Trump. (This last one used to be especially fun while playing cards...no longer.) Even the word “all” is a tricky one, since the slogan “All Lives Matter” is viewed as a backlash against the Black Lives Matter movement.
So how do we express ourselves without feeling like we’re tip-toeing around landmines? The first thing we need to do is observe and listen. Read what people from all walks of life are experiencing right now and be both sensitive and open to other points-of-view. Practice compassion and let your words convey that.
Even when our intentions are positive, they can still be misinterpreted. We might come across in a way that we never intended. When this happens, acknowledge the lesson and learn from it.
If the criticism is unwarranted or overblown, consider the source. Right now, so many of us are experiencing unrelenting stress from Covid-19. Our emotions are heightened and we’re quicker to react. Take a moment to breathe before you respond.
Spend time interacting with people from different generations. Not only will you gain valuable perspective, you might also pick up some fun new slang. (Warning: If you’re older than 25, don’t attempt to use these words in public.)
Most importantly, be receptive and pivot when needed. That’s the beauty of words. They aren’t set in stone. They can be changed, refreshed, renewed—and hopefully remedied if expressed sincerely and authentically.
In the end, write honestly and clearly. Know your audience. Understand which words resonate and which ones don’t. Then focus on what you’d like to say and say it the best way you can.
Don’t worry about perfection, which will only make you feel inhibited. Rather, focus on your truth and the words will follow. And if they don’t, let your thoughts simmer awhile.
We don’t always know the right thing to say or how to say it, especially in light of the countless crises we’re enduring right now. But we can use our words for positive change. As Toni Morrison said, “We speak. We write. We do language. That is how civilizations heal.”