As part of my summer reading, I’ve been working on Old Path White Clouds by Thich Nhat Hanh. During my reading yesterday, I came across this quote:
Do not speak words that can create division and hatred. Your words should be in accord with the truth. Yes means yes. No means no. Words have the power to create trust and happiness, or they can create misunderstanding and hatred and even lead to murder and war. Please use words with the greatest care.
It really struck a chord with me, because of what I (we) study, and also given many recent issues in the news. The power of communication is a complicated issue. After all, words only mean what we allow them to mean – they are simply random collections of sound. However, that isn’t completely true; once meaning is associated with language, it takes on power. We know this in our own lives, where we have hurt others, and been hurt, by something said. Perhaps you knew it when we were children and cried over a hurtful comment. Your parents may have told us the saying, “sticks and stones can break my bones, but words can never hurt me.” But, did we believe them? If you are like me, you may well have found yourself thinking, “Well, that is silly; words CAN hurt me – they just did!” Maybe you realized the power of words the first time you said, “I HATE you!” to a family member or friend and saw the pain it created.
On the other hand, I’ve recently been told by a young adult that online flaming or bullying shouldn’t matter, because it’s simply words and people should not care about what is said to/about them in social media settings. And, I understand the point that he was making. Such words only have power if we allow them to – they cannot hurt us without our permission. And yet…
So, what is the reality of the power of words? Well, it seems to me that, by being scholars of communication, we have acknowledged that communication forms, including the verbal, have power and importance in our lives. In fact, many communication scholars would say that communication is the fundamental factor of our very humanity. And, regardless of whether we should or shouldn’t allow the words of others to affect us, they do. And in the face of that truth, Thich Nhat Hanh’s advice makes sense.