Words, Words, Words

Remember high school English and the dreaded research paper? All those rules about style, sources, and the bibliography! The style guide in the textbook listed the rules, but they seemed confusing. Ironically, the purpose wasn’t to confuse you but to increase skills in communicating clearly and discerning facts and truth from personal beliefs or opinion.

Good communication, however, is more than words and grammar, whether you are speaking, writing or signing in American Sign Language. Words do matter. They are symbols, so the meanings sent may not be the meanings received. Who says the words? In what context?

The question is this: How conscious are you of the impact of your words?

My life has been about words. Currently, as Director of Curriculum at Silent Blessings Deaf Ministries, I’m creating printed materials for our SignLab VBS, including a brief style guide to assist volunteer copyeditors (anyone interested?). Smaller than an English textbook, it addresses issues relevant for writers and copyeditors about (1) grammar, (2) usage, and contexts of interaction between Deaf and hearing people.

One segment addresses sexist, biased, or discriminatory words. This topic is critically important for hearing people who do not understand the context of deafness and who may unintentionally marginalize a deaf person.

But this concern applies in all human interactions, especially as today’s American culture becomes increasingly multi-cultural. When disagreements or misunderstandings arise, consider these responses: Try to understand one another. Yell louder and longer in hopes of winning. Walk away and ignore the unresolved confusion.

Only the first response builds good relationships. You can’t control other people’s responses, but you can work patiently toward understanding.

How? Pay attention to people’s responses and to the meanings of their words within the context. Words matter. One word can have layers of meaning. Ask for clarification, if necessary. Words sometimes pop out before we consider another person’s interpretation. We can say, “I didn’t mean it that way!” but once a word is out there, it can never be retracted.

The phrase “deaf and dumb” is an example. Tracing its origin, as it came to equate dumb with deaf, is unnecessary here. But it is necessary to state with great emphasis: Never use that phrase! Its continued use is hurtful, wrong, misleading, and demeaning.

Discriminatory language occurs frequently, though often unconsciously. Silent Blessings’ overarching goal is ministry that is redeeming, reconciling, and loving. So if you believe in honoring others with common kindness and respect, especially Christians, be deliberate in all situations. Monitor the words you say, write, or sign. Think before you speak, as the saying goes. Guard against hurtful and unnecessary descriptions, assumptions, partial truths, and unverified references. Speak with truth as well as with kindness.

What rules guide your personal communication for positive and productive communication? These suggestions come from a favorite author of mine: keep your feelings in check; don’t speak unkindly or untruthfully about people; hold no prejudices; be patient, gentle, forgiving, and kind toward other (Paul, in Colossians 3).

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