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Words: A Real Power Tool

Words are powerful!  Humankind’s linguistic ability is one of the characteristics that distinguish us from lower life forms.  Words can convey very complex ideas.  They can express one’s emotion or bring the emotions of another to a fever pitch.  Words can unfold a story or a heart.  They can clarify or blur truth.  They can make or break a relationship. 

Yes, words are an extremely powerful tool.  They are as sharp as any two-edged sword, but can also be as warm and healing as the sunshine of a clear spring day after a long and bitter-cold winter.  As with any tool, you want to use this one wisely and with great care so people don’t get hurt.  Last week we looked at labeling; this week, we look at name-calling. 

Name-calling is similar to labeling, but differs in its motive. (See “Your Label Tells Me Who You Are”) While labeling is an attempt to categorize a person or group, (For example – “Union worker”) name-calling is most commonly used to hurt or disparage someone (For example- “scab”).  By common understanding, name-calling is the use of offensive names especially to win an argument or to induce rejection or condemnation.

“Sticks and stones may break my bones but words will never hurt me.”  This 150+ year-old nursery rhyme implies that name-calling is nothing new and that it invokes sorrow.

There is no doubt that name-calling is NOT a way to improve any relationship whether it be our friends, family, co-workers or acquaintances. Even when said in jest, name-calling can become a form of emotional abuse. Who wants to leave themselves open to insult and ridicule? Whether immediately or slowly over time, relationships are damaged by name-calling. Communications are weakened; trust is diminished, respect gone. This is especially true with partners in marriage who should be striving for a closer bond but instead build a wall that may leave their marriage lacking in that deeper love that most of us seek, the kind of love that many will only share when they no longer feel vulnerable but safe enough to expose their inner self.

So why do it?

As already mentioned, name-calling is used to win an argument or to induce rejection or condemnation.  So when the next occasion arises and you find yourself ready to blurb your favorite ridicule, ask yourself these questions:

Am I saying this out of anger?                                                    Then don’t say it.
Will this really further my argument?                                       Then what would be the point?       
Am I attempting to hurt this person with my words?              Stop and think this over.

Once I recognize when I am acting out of my emotions rather than my logical self, then I can begin to make some changes in my behavior and reap the benefits it will undoubtedly produce. One benefit is this: the best way to change someone else’s behavior toward you is to change your behavior toward them. We teach others how we want to be treated by what we permit and respond to.

Isn’t it true that whenever we engage in name-calling, whether it be serious or not, we expect some kind of emotional response back from the person we are engaging? So then it follows that if a person tries to engage us by their name-calling and we don’t respond in like manner then the incentive has been removed and therefore their behavior toward us will change.  As W.C. Fields said, “It ain't what they call you, it's what you answer to.”   

If negative name-calling is meant to diminish a person and can jeopardize a relationship then it follows that positive name-calling can boost a person and benefit a relationship if sincerely done. By positive name-calling, we mean names of endearment and expressions of praise.  These obviously do not follow the same motive as negative name-calling. Loving words not only build strong interpersonal bonds, but they also nourish and heal the one to whom they are addressed. Hurtful words disrupt such bonds and wound and damage the person to whom they’ve been uttered.

As love grows stronger, so does the desire to praise. Conversely, when our desire to praise weakens, we can be pretty sure our love is also weakening, that we are moving away from a path toward a deeper love.  The proof of this is can be measured through our habit and ability to praise. And if we don’t see much to praise in those around us, then perhaps we don’t know them or love them well enough. 
This is a great way to examine relationships.  To what names do you respond?  What is the character of your name-calling?  Whether you are speaking to them or about them, do the names you use for those around you tear them down or build them up.  How rich and how plentiful is praise in your every day vocabulary?  Are you silver-tongued or fork-tongued?  How well are you using this very powerful tool?