catapult magazine

catapult magazine

Vol 13, Num 13 :: 2014.06.27 — 2014.07.10


You can’t just use any word!

“Tell her ‘thank you,’” my mother whispered into my ear as we rounded the car after a 4-H meeting at Mrs. Bunnell’s house. 

Now if I had learned anything growing up in my eleven years, it was the importance of telling the truth, so after thinking a second or two, I called out, over the roof of the car, “Thank you, I had quite a nice time.”

Well, that was a mistake!  And I was about the get a free vocabulary lesson.  “Do you know what you just said?” my mother said to me over her shoulder in that voice mothers use when you have really messed up.

“I did what you told me to do. I told her ‘thank you.’”

“But you told her that you had ‘quite a nice time.’ Do you know what that means?” and before I could answer, she went on, “That means that you had an okay time.  It could have been better, but it would do. Can you imagine how she felt? It was” — and here her voice changed again — “’quite a nice time!’ Like maybe you wish you weren’t there, but since you were, you endured it just fine.”

Now, as much as I thought my mother had caught exactly how I felt, I somehow knew this was not the time to say so.  So I kept quiet, and so did she.  But something had happened in that exchange, something that changed me forever, or at least started a change.  Good communication was more than being honest.  You must choose your words carefully, thinking about how they would be interpreted by the listener.

A year or so later, my father and I had just returned home in the car and he cleared his throat — you know, that sound people make when they have been getting the nerve up to say something. So I took my hand off the door handle and sat back.

“You know, you have to be a liaison between your mother and your sister.” I was stunned.  That was one of the vocabulary words we had just studied, and my dad was using it like it was an everyday word and I was expected to know it.  Fortunately, I did! Somehow my dad knew I would understand what he was trying to say. Anyway, we were all still reeling after my five-year-old brother’s sudden death a few months earlier, and no one was doing much effective communication. It was like we were learning a whole new language, of suffering. My little sister somehow got lost in it all, and her lack of language for all of this pain came out in volume and hurtful words, and no one had the energy to give her the time and words she needed most.  Now my father was asking me to be a “liaison,” a new word. Vocabulary words were really practical words.

My attention was once more drawn to words, to the precise nature of each word, the meanings a word could carry, the influence the context of the word had on the meaning and even the way words were strung together.  They all mattered if we wanted to communicate and be understood.  We had to think — we must think — about how our words would be received by the hearer.

Today, when I teach my students about writing and communication, these long ago lessons always resurface in my memory. And though I don’t tell my students how I learned the importance of considering our hearers, I do try to teach them the importance of thinking beyond our own understanding, of thinking about what our words might mean to those who hear them.

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