Word mines are benign words to which people attach intense personal meanings. Benign words spoken by one person can trigger deep emotional feelings in others. Word mines are burried deep within people. Stepping on a word mine causes an intense emotional eruption. The person who inadvertently steps on a word mine is left stunned and confused not realizing that the benign word he or she spoke activated deep emotional feelings in the other person. A speaker at a lecture I attended made reference to the fact that people have two ears and only one mouth meaning that people should listen twice as much as they speak. On the surface these words are nonthreatening and contain sound advice. However, one participant perceived these words as offensive and vehemently complained to the sponsor of the event. The participant demanded an apology from the speaker. In a later discussion with the speaker, the participant explained that his son was born without one ear and felt that the speaker’s comment made fun of his son. The speaker apologized but remained perplexed. The speaker spoke wise words, yet became a rhetorical villain.
The hazard of word mines is that people do not know what emotional meanings others attach to otherwise innocuous words. When word mines unexpectedly go off, people tend to respond defensively to the unexpected emotional outburst, which typically intensifies the initial response. A person who steps on a word mine and reacts defensively is often seen as insensitive and lacking compassion. The recipient of an unexpected emotional explosion is often left confused not knowing what to do or what to say.