how we use words, and how words relate to empathy, curiosity, conflict and responsibility

My curiosity is one of my greatest gifts.

But my curiosity has also been the subject of ridicule by those who are afraid of its power.

My curiosity allows me to see below the surface of a matter. I have always been interested in knowing more and looking deeper.

Words absolutely matter to me. I have no shame in that. Explaining, exposing, revealing, creating understanding, communicating vision… these are things that words can do. And these are the things that we love about artists: they help us see things in new ways. They reveal hidden things to us that are difficult to articulate. The deep care that writers, musicians, poets, artists give to words… that is what we love about artists.

I notice that in conversation, my ask of “what do you mean?”can stack rather high in comparison to some of my peers. I don’t ask the question in judgement, but in curiosity. I do wish to know what it is that the person I am speaking with means.

“What do you mean?” I say. I am gauging how different and how same we are.

I always appreciate it when “what do you mean?” is asked back to me. I feel like the difference between our experience is recognized. I worry about being in a relationship for months and years without ever having someone ask me “what do you mean when you say that?” “how are you using that word?” “what does that sentence mean to you?” “why did you say that?”

Words are not just niceties and embellishments. Explaining is not always a weakness. It can be a sign of respect for difference of experience. (I realize however, that I learned to “over-explain” myself to people who did not share any curiosity about our difference, who only wanted to impose sameness. I do not find over-explaining to be empowering. I take it as a sign then that curiosity is not reciprocated in the relationship in the way that I had hoped. But, I digress.) Using words that no one understands without explaining them is pretentious.

Spoken language shape how we make sense of our lives in relationship to each other. We are social. The spoken matters us much as the unspoken languages and ways we send messages to each other, such as our body language.

When we speak, we often do so in order to be understood. Sometimes, the meanings of the words we use are agreed upon. On other occasions, we may have different meanings for the same words, or different. It is why we argue about words like “intersectional”, why we fight for the contexts, histories and stories to be recovered. It is why we have so many songs and books and art about “love”. It is why you can have the same author write vastly different love stories. Some words are more complex than others. Words like “love” are not self-evident. How we individually understand “love” is shaped by what we personally experience and the histories that shape that personal experience.

I think that at the root of some of our interpersonal conflict is the assumption that we enter the relationships we find ourselves in with the same meaning for the words we use. What do we mean when you say that you want a “break”? A person can have the word “break” introduced into the relationship. Their understanding of the word, the meaning attached to it, can induce a sense of panic and doom. Or, the word can bring a sense of relief and peace. (And then of course… a “break” from WHAT?) Why would one word, the same word provoke different reactions? Because they mean different things to different people. We bring our contexts into the words we use. Whether these relationships are with co-workers, friends, lovers… we often come with the assumption that we always see eye to eye when we use particular words.

As children, we come to learn what words mean by watching the connections between the actions of the people around us with the words that they use. My context informs what I think about when I hear the word “mother” or “love”. “Mother” might bring me feelings of sadness, while “mother” may bring feelings of warmth to someone else. I have had to create new and life-giving meanings for words that felt painful and confusing.

We must seek to understand and stay curious. It is not always easy to be curious, but it can help us love ourselves and others better. Curiosity can be vulnerable. We have to have empathy when we speak and words are not immediately understood. We need the humility to remember that we do not always know, but we can continue to be curious. We cannot simply dismiss those who desire to understand by saying that words matter more to someone else than others. It matters to all of us, whether we are conscious of it or not. We all have stakes involved in matters that involve words, language, speaking. Some of us are simply more aware of the stakes, and the possibility of misunderstanding, even in the use of similar words.

Let’s be curious about what others mean, how they are using words, what they are envisioning, imagining… what they could possibility be re-living. Let us find the humility to hear the other; to find the difference when we are prone to assume the same, and to find the similarities when it is harder for us to imagine that someone else could share anything with us.