Monday, May 14, 2007
Top of Utah Voices: Words strike like lightning with power to illuminate or burn
Sunday, April 29, 2007
By Allison Barlow Hess
In her communication class as Weber State University, Professor Becky Johns conducts a simple object lesson. On one slip of paper she has her students write their least favorite food. On the next paper they list upcoming papers and assignments, and on a third paper they write their mother's name.
Dr. Johns then instructs the students to take the first paper and tear it into shreds, to which they happily comply. The next paper she tells them to crumple into a ball, which they love to do. She then asks them to take the third paper, the one with their mother's name, and throw it on the floor and stamp on it.
Most of the students refuse the request. "Why?" she asks. "It's just lines on a scrap paper." After all, they don't actually have to throw their mother on the floor. Even as mere symbols, however, words can evoke powerful emotions.
We should be careful when we treat them as if they were no more important than scrap paper discarded underfoot.
Recent obvious testaments to that are Don Imus, who debased and desecrated for a quick laugh; Alec Baldwin, who blew an apparently short fuse; and John McCain, who bombed with thoughtlessness.
None threw sticks or stones, but names and faces do hurt us -- all of us. Unkind, uncensored words trample the soul. If we could see emotional scars left from wounding words the way we see physical scars, we would likely shrink from each other's disfigurement.
Once spoken, not even sincere apologies can reclaim words, which might eventually be forgiven but often not forgotten. As the Arabian proverb reminds, "When you have spoken the word, it reigns over you. When it is unspoken, you reign over it."
Mistakes with words aren't usually mean-spirited; it's more likely we just speak before we think. Our true meaning isn't malicious, just muddled. For example, in grammar class we discuss misplaced modifiers, which are those words, phrases or clauses placed incorrectly in a sentence that make the sentence unclear or even funny.
In the following sentence, a reader may reasonably question who robbed the store. "The thieves were apprehended soon after the convenience store was robbed by police."
Or in this sentence, "People who exercise occasionally may have some minor aches and pains," is it occasional exercisers who suffer aches and pains, or regular exercisers who suffer occasional aches and pains?
Speaking with clarity and precision isn't just a mental exercise. According to a March 2007 report released by the National Association of Colleges and Employers (NACE), communication skills are at the top of the list in what employers look for in a potential employee.
"Communication skills have topped the list for eight years, and honesty and integrity have tied for the top spot for the last three years," said Marilyn Mackes, NACE executive director.
Trying to make the perfect word choice can be tongue tying. When I'm teaching, I often appoint one student as my official sentence finisher. That engaged student seems to know the word I'm struggling to capture. When I get to that powerful punch line, I pause, point to my sentence finisher and let that student conjure the right word at the right moment. I'm always grateful. As Mark Twain said, "The difference between the right word and the almost right word is the difference between lightning and a lightning bug."
The right words, carefully chosen or quickly delivered, strike with lightning force; they can burn, destroy and kill -- or with equal force they can illuminate, elevate, enliven and inspire.
In his autobiography, civil rights activist Malcolm X described how words transformed his life during a stay in prison. "I saw the best thing I could do was get hold of a dictionary -- to study, to learn some words," he wrote.
"In my slow, painstaking, ragged handwriting, I copied into my tablet everything on that first page, down to the punctuation marks." He eventually copied the entire dictionary. "From then on until I left that prison in every free moment I had I was reading on my bunk. You couldn't have gotten me out of books with a wedge," he wrote. "Months passed without my even thinking about being imprisoned. In fact, up to then I never had been so truly free in my life."
Freedom to express exactly what we mean can bring good wages, good will and good relationships. William Shakespeare advised, "Mend your speech a little, lest it may mar your fortune."
(or you can read it here)
I love David McCullough's books because they are histories and so you really learn something, but they read like a novel. He has a gift for organizing information so that the pages seem to turn on their own.
I actually listened to this one on tape.. same concept though... and the reader is great. The only thing is that the tape version of the book is an abridgement and I hate that. I know I am missing important details like, I know that McCullough must have talked about what this canal would mean to the major economies of the world, but it is barely mentioned in the abridgement. Somebody read the long version and fill me in.
I like books like this though, you know the kind where there is an impossible task and then people just rise to the occasion and accomplish it anyway.
I found the section about disease particulary interesting. Yellow fever and Malaria were terribly common in Panama until they discovered ways to eradicate or atleast greatly reduce the mosquitoe population. They were just learning that those diseases were spread by mosquitoes instead of the popularly held idea that it was bad air.
In the end, how they put together the moving parts for the locks and how they work.... fascinating stuff.