At first, I was going to write about the various layers of healthy boundaries we have, beginning with our skin and ending with our renewed spirit. But I got stuck at language. Most of our boundaries are either created or destroyed by language. We forget that language is first and foremost a creator of reality. It is through language that we discover and articulate our identities. Language, too, is the creator and sustainer of relationships, creating bridges of understanding between people.
Redemptively speaking, how we speak and the words we use, even the tones we employ while we communicate, are in their best sense, intended to create community.
The end goal of language should be understanding, not winning. Communication is about bringing people together and creating unity, defining differences, and expressing individuality. None of these need be threatening, but we live in a world where language is one of the weapons of choice.
The goal of this post is to make you aware of how the reckless use of language harms people, sometimes irrevocably but also to give you strategies to combat the misuse of language in yourself, your family, and beyond. The power of life and death is in the tongue, says Scripture. Current studies on the effects of language on our bodies give this more than a figurative meaning.
Five Abuses of Language
- Lies. This is one of the most obvious abuses, and arguably, the most serious. The issue with lying is that it renders relationship impossible. How can you have a relationship with a mirage? But the issue is that lying contains within it so many shades of abuse I could possibly write a book on them. So here is a brief list of lies and their effects:
- The direct lie breaks down the foundation of a relationship.
- Propaganda manipulates the emotions of a populace.
- White lies assume that the other person is too weak to be told the truth.
- Withholding information is withholding safety from others.
- Exaggeration can be manipulative.
- The words we use towards others can drastically affect their identity. As a college professor, I have students who recall with perfect clarity the shaming criticisms of their fifth-grade teachers who told them they were poor writers. Well, newsflash. All fifth graders lack finesse in their writing skills.
2. Shaming. The words we use towards others can drastically affect their identity. As a college professor, I have students who recall with perfect clarity the shaming criticisms of their fifth-grade teachers who told them they were poor writers. Well, newsflash. All fifth graders lack finesse in their writing skills.
Criticism is only helpful when constructive and directed towards the task at hand. When we criticize others directly, we judge them which is never our job unless on a jury. Gossip is almost always judging another behind their backs.
We can judge actions and words, but never the individual.
We judge people’s fruit. We do not judge people without endangering ourselves. Criticize the work, not the fifth grader.
- Inappropriate language. Every abuser, whether sexual, emotional, or physical, breaks down the barriers of another using language first. An abusive man could never get a woman to love him if he started hitting her right off the bat. A pedophile uses sexual language to open doors and break down barriers against intimacy. Abusers slowly push down boundaries with increasingly demeaning words and accusations.
Inappropriate language is everywhere these days. Here are a few and their effects:
- Name calling dehumanizes others.
- Degrading terms create a sense of insecurity and unworthiness or self-disgust.
- Racist language dehumanizes others.
- Sexually coarse or degrading language turns humans into animals and sex into a violent act.
- Actual physical threats intimidate and cause fear.
4. Arrogant or boastful language. By using patronizing tones or condescension in our body language, we communicate unworthiness to others. Parents, you might not like this, but when we lecture our kids, we talk at them, not to them. We often assume an insulting position and then are angered when our children’s hearts remain closed to us. I consider lecturing to be, perhaps not abusive, but often shaming and rarely helpful.
Trying to guilt someone is another abuse of language. Real communication requires two participants and two listeners. But arrogant language has become a norm these days and our excessive use of it has really contributed to the current divide in our country. I include in this category, all us vs. them speech. Really, society has not evolved beyond the star bellied sneeches and those without stars upon thars. The purpose of arrogant talk is exclusion rather than inclusion.
- Too many words. There is a difference between people who talk a lot and those who overwhelm others with a swarm of words. People who are chatty may have insecurity issues. Those who command every conversation seem to me to come in a number of different categories. Some are controlling and need to dominate a conversation in order to ensure their own safety. These people are often funny or have great stories. But make no mistake, they construct a wall of words to keep you out.
Abusers overwhelm with words mainly just to shut you up. Narcissists particularly have no tolerance for the give and take of
normal conversation because they know they have no ground on which to stand.
Fast talkers and smooth talkers just want to sell you something, a product, a false story, or perhaps just a version of themselves. Either way, their words cover up rather than reveal.
Words should always shed light rather than obfuscate.
Lastly, there are the drainers who monopolize your time with their self-pitying monologues. If you feel guilty about not wanting to listen to them, you should probably put up some boundaries. After all, the drainers want to steal your energy and your time.
So how to win this war of words we engage in every day? How we use our words can help keep us safe. Using our words wisely is the work of a lifetime, however. A weak moment and we can place ourselves on that list above. Here are some formulas, however, for creating safe boundaries for communication.
- Listen to yourself. If a conversation is making you uncomfortable, then chances are language is being used against you rather than for communication. If you feel icky, then believe yourself.
- Make your discomfort known, out loud. The way I do that is I will say, “When I hear you say _____, I feel _______. I cannot count how many times this tactic has prevented a conversation from going too far. I wish all young women knew how to do this when a man is trying to push down a boundary. Merely observing out loud what is happening creates a verbal boundary. It is a polite but firm way to let the other person know that they should not continue.
- Let your intentions be known. If someone is being combative or yelling at you, keeping your cool is a good idea. But even better, let them know one time that you aren’t willing to continue the conversation. Then don’t continue it.
If you feel trapped in a conversation, give them a time limit. Be willing to enforce that time limit. This is helpful with salesmen as well as drainers. This way you don’t have to feel rude but you are setting the rules for the conversation.
People will not listen to ‘I don’t have a lot of time’ but they hear ‘I have ten minutes to give you, but at noon, I have to leave’.
- Telling the truth is a safe boundary. Abused women often lie because they are afraid. I know I did. But telling the truth led to far more safety than hiding how bad it was. Lies always get found out.
- Change the atmosphere by saying positive things. We once had a very negative member of the family. We resolved to only speak positive things around them. Every time it steered the conversation away from darker subjects. I once had a very argumentative class. Their arguments were uninformed and often veered toward the ugly. Rather than make the class a lecture course to shut them up, I wrote the word “Peace” on the board.
The first time, I had them look at the word and think about it. Some of them reported feeling more peaceful. After that, I just put the word on the board and had no problem the rest of the semester.
Positive language sets an expectation. When I told my classes that I knew they could succeed, they did. I knew other professors who delighted in telling their classes that half of them would fail. Their students lived down to their expectations.
Language has the power to build community or tear it down. Chances are you remember many of the negative things spoken by others. I am not advocating for politically correct speech or challenging the right to free speech.
However, in a culture where people are allowed to say what they want, it is wise to know what you are willing to listen to.
Use your language carefully and judiciously. Just because your words may not be popular does not mean you should not say them. However, how you say them often makes the difference as to whether you are heard or not. If you find yourself speaking to win, you will only attract the like-minded. If you speak to bring understanding, from a place of invitation, chances are people will hear you. And few things are as rewarding as knowing that you have been heard.
He that hath knowledge spareth his words: and a man of understanding is of an excellent spirit. Proverbs 17:27
The words of a talebearer are as wounds, and they go down into the innermost parts of the belly. Proverbs 18:8
Seest thou a man that is hasty in his words? there is more hope of a fool than of him. Proverbs 29:20
Pleasant words are as an honeycomb, sweet to the soul, and health to the bones. Proverbs 16:24
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