“Mind your language!” is an enduring and universal childhood memory.
Or is it?
Many of us grow into forgetful adults who don’t always measure the impact our words might have on others. Especially when we’re cranky, when we’re tired, when we’re frustrated, or when our social skills are in short supply for any reason.
Even when language is our job, attitude can sometimes get in the way of message delivery and dilute an otherwise valid point.
Although strong-worded op-eds can shock readers into paying attention, writing them is a journalistic discipline. Before those words set the page on fire, they go through at least another set of eyes, if not several. Editorial standards matter as much as avoiding legal repercussions.
That’s why journalists are intimately familiar with the concepts of slander and libel.
Take away gatekeepers and editors, transpose print to online and you’re in the Wild West, especially in the US. In the country where free speech is often misconstrued as the freedom to do away with basic human decency, vicious ad hominem attacks and bullying are the norm.
Ever since Trump normalized vitriolic online tirades, civility has become a chimera in America.
Shouting louder than the next person is what often passes for communication on this side of the Atlantic.
America is a loud place, even online, as egos jostle for attention in the most obnoxious way. In the land where individualism is held up as a virtue, the common good inevitably suffers and susceptibility is off the charts. People are so busy screaming and being right they’ve lost the ability to listen, converse, or indeed use language for what it’s for: communicate.
To assume from the get go your voice and opinion matter more than the next person’s is hardly a respectful way to approach communication.
Worse, it renders it impossible because talking at people isn’t the same as talking to them. It’s not even talking but lecturing, and this doesn’t tend to work well outside of academia.
But it doesn’t stop people from lobbing words at one another as if they were grenades and turning the internet into a battleground. As supporters rush to take sides rather than a step back, perspective gets lost, cliques form, mediation becomes impossible.
And yet, the very tool that got us into this mess is the same tool that can get us out of it: Language can connect as much as it can alienate.
How to use it is a personal choice, one we make every single time we interact with a fellow human, be it in meatspace or online.
Along with linguists and lexicographers, writers are the custodians of language.
It is a responsibility we all share, and one we should ideally strive to be worthy of with everything we publish. This means we’re duty-bound to think about the impact our words will have before we let them loose. Do they meet our own editorial standards? Will they advance the global conversation? Do they serve a purpose?
And in an industry where your byline is your currency, what do your words say about you? Readers don’t need you to tell them who you are, your words speak for themselves. Are you aware of what information they convey?
A lack of self-awareness makes writing a dangerous pursuit as the wrong words can blow up in your face, causing extensive damage. Solid editing is a good fail-safe mechanism, as is letting a piece rest for a while if you’re in two minds about its tone.
What’s more, not everything we type is writing, and not everything we write deserves publishing. Knowing what to keep and what to scrap is a skill that comes with time, practice, and extensive reading so you have a sense of what works for an audience.
Not what works for you.
Unless you’re writing a journal, writing isn’t about you. Even when you use your experience to humanize a universal issue, it is never about you.
Perspective can help you utilize language effectively. Cultivate it and your words will build bridges; lose it and your words will build a wall around you.
And if you’re starting to feel walled in, take a step back and look for the crack. Find it and you’ve found a way out of alienation and back to communication via mediation.
There is no issue so impenetrable that it cannot be addressed calmly and respectfully, talked about, and resolved.
By putting some thought into our words, we can all be diplomats.