When Words Are Weapons: 10 Responses Everyone Should Avoid
Do your words do you and others justice?
Posted March 23, 2015
Of all the adages that get bandied about, perhaps the most wrong-headed is “Sticks and stones can break my bones/ But words can never harm me.” We all know from experience that it isn’t true –whether we wept with shame in the schoolyard as children, were reduced to quivering jelly by a parent’s criticism, or were torn apart by a lover’s contempt—but now science knows why.
It turns out that the brain receptors for physical and emotional pain are one and the same so, yes, you can have your heart and spirit broken more literally than not. There’s some evidence that the over-the-counter remedy for physical pain works for emotional pain too. It turns out too that when pain is inflicted intentionally, the hurt is greater—which is all the more reason to pay attention to the words that come out of our mouths. Years ago, when I was in graduate school in English, there was a professor who was justly famous for his withering put-downs of his students; it was said that his insults were so subtle and “rapier swift” that the victim wouldn’t know he’d been wounded until he saw the “blood.”
Appreciating how devastating the wounds words can deliver in the context of intimate relationships—whether that’s between a parent and child, siblings, spouses, or close friends—is part of the process that accompanies the healing and repair of those relationships when they have been damaged. If one party refuses to take responsibility for his or her words—or, even worse, won’t concede the true meaning and intent of those words—the chances are good that the relationship is doomed to fail.
Words become weapons because of the metamessages they deliver, as Deborah Tannen explains in her book, You’re Wearing That? Say the title without emphasizing “that” and then say it again, giving the last word a nasty spin. That’s a metamessage as delivered by a mother to her daughter in Tannen’s example. It’s how and why words are uttered that matter, way beyond their literal meaning. Our emotional histories with the speaker shape the metamessages we hear and, in turn, those messages inform the speaker’s words as well.
Words become weapons for both linguistic and psychological reasons. A very skilled linguist—such as the professor at Columbia—can throw verbal javelins under the guise of wit with great deliberateness; why an admired and often published man needed to humiliate his students is a psychological matter. Some people, though, are linguistically sloppy and convey messages they don’t intend and sometimes pay the price. These folks are essentially well-meaning and are appropriately contrite when they’re called out. There are also the thoughtless people,who let words tumble out of their mouths with nary a consideration, filter, censor, or brakes; it’s up to the listener to determine their intent. But there are those who are thoroughly intentional when it comes to word wounding; they refuse to take responsibility for their words and act out of impulse, self-involvement, and self-aggrandizement. They usually need to win, no matter the cost to the other person, and insist on having the last word. And then there are those who revel in their meanness and love the power their words give them over others. These last two types, along with people like the professor, cause the most harm.
So pony up to some honesty: How skilled are you at using your words the way you intend? Take a look at these answers—offered up in a thoroughly unscientific way and highlighted in bold—and ask yourself: Have I ever said this or something like it? Have I been the javelin thrower or on the receiving end of it? The analysis of the exchange is by this English major.
1. “I’m finally done with the project. I’m thrilled.”
“At least you got something done for once.”
A withering put-down which turns the speaker’s joy into an opportunity to hurt and criticize.
2. “ I have something I want to show you.”
“Not now. Can’t you see I’m busy? Whatever it is, it’ll keep.”
This dialogue is often reported by the adult children of detached parents. Yes, it’s true enough that parents can’t be available 24/7 and that sometimes they are busy, but here the intention is to marginalize the speaker and make him or her feel insignificant.
3. “Let me help you with that.”
“No, I’ll do it. That way, it’ll be done right.”
Yes, no good deed goes unpunished. This type of dialogue appears with frequency in relationships that are very distressed, especially in marriages where the level of dissatisfaction is very high. It’s a war of words associated with gatekeeping and territoriality, wherein one part of the dyad is intent on highlighting the speaker’s deficiencies. If the speaker attempts a comeback of sorts, it’s likely the conversation will devolve into what John Gottman has called “kitchensinking”—a free-for-all catalogue of the speaker’s every flaw.
4. “I’m happy I got a B on that exam,”
“Your brother/sister/cousin/friend aced it, you know.”
An example of the “let’s rain on your parade” response. No, children do not find it inspirational nor does it help them try harder the next time. They get the message and it hurts.
5. “ We really need to talk about this.”
“Again? I am so sick and tired of talking.”
This is the Demand/Withdraw pattern in action—where one partner makes a request, even a reasonable one, and the other partner withdraws. In this case, the withdrawal is laced with aggression and contempt, and marginalizes the speaker’s intention. It is utterly defeating and highly destructive.
6. “Should I wear the blue dress?”
“ That? It makes you look even fatter.”
No comment needed here.
7. “You hurt my feelings by saying that.”
“You’re just too sensitive. It meant nothing.”
This is the defense of unloving mothers and all those who use words as tools of power and diminishment. When used by a adult to a child, these words are not just painful but highly intimidating; likely as not, the child will assume the fault is hers or his. Note the use of “it” rather than “I” which further deflects the responsibility away from the person doing the talking, The toxicity of this response is impossible to understate because it causes lasting damage.
8. “I’ve decided on my science project.”
“ Talk to your dad. He’ll know what you should do.”
Alas, this response may not be intentionally marginalizing but it does the work anyway. The subtext is “ Your decision is most likely wrong and you’ll need guidance to make the right one.” Even if offered “helpfully” by an overly involved or helicopter parent, it conveys the message that the child isn’t capable of making a good choice. If this happens often enough, the child comes away thinking “I can’t make it on my own.”
9. “ How are you?”
“Not good. Things have been really hard. I’ve been sleeping badly.”
“ Did I tell you what happened to me last week?”
This dialogue or one like it is the hallmark of the “Me Me Me!” person in your life who’s utterly self-involved and whose actual participation in what appears to be a conversation is limited to getting his or her own words heard. People like this are quite literally not interested in what you have to say and their responses make that crystal clear. This pattern is merely annoying or par for the course if the person is an acquaintance or less; if the person is someone you actually feel close to or want to share intimacies with, it can be devastating. Coming from a parent or someone who you think cares about you and your welfare, it’s beyond painful.
10. “ I’m so upset about what’s been going on at home.”
“ Tell me about it. But, you know, things could always be worse.”
This is the standard response of someone lacking in empathy, who knows it’s considered polite to listen, but has no real emotional connection to you, the words you’re saying, or the situation you’re describing. The reference to even more dire circumstances sends the message that you are overreacting, and that you and your travails aren’t important. Additionally, there’s a subtext that you should probably stop whining and man up. The irony here is that the respondent often mistakenly believes that what he or she is saying is for the benefit of the speaker. Actually, not.
Words are forces to be reckoned with. We all need to pay attention to how and why we speak them when we do.
Copyright © Peg Streep 2015
For the science of how words hurt, see my post: https://www.psychologytoday.com/blog/tech-support/201308/why-words-can-hurt-least-much-sticks-and-stones
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Tannen, Deborah. You’re Wearing That? Mothers and Daug h ters in Conversation . New York: Ballantine Books, 2006.