It is often said that talk is cheap; it’s actions that matter. Yet the wartime slogan ‘careless talk costs lives’ reminds us that words have the power to cause actions.
If something is untrue, words alone can’t make it true, but said enough times to enough people, they can make people utterly believe it is true – children who are constantly told they’re useless, worthless and ugly come to believe that, and carry that burden with them throughout life, in spite of any evidence to the contrary.
George Orwell recognised this when he wrote, in 1984, about Big Brother banning the use of certain words. If you take the words out of the culture, the theory went, you removed their concepts as well.
On another branch of the literary tree, Douglas Adams once imagined a race of people somewhere in the universe who didn’t have an equivalent phrase to ‘The grass is always greener on the other side of the fence’, so were forced to settle down and be highly contented with their lot, revealing that “The best way not to be unhappy is not to have a word for it.”
Words are powerful. They paint pictures and shape hearts and minds. “Yes we can.” “I have a dream.” “Am I not a man and a brother?” Our hearts align themselves around the words and phrases we hear and find compelling, and changed hearts change actions.
This is one reason why freedom of speech is so precious to us, and why legislation has been put in place to restrict ‘hate speech’ – repetition and dissemination of words against a particular group will inevitably lead to actions being taken against that group.
I have made a conscious decision to avoid using the word ‘deserve’ in my speech and writing, either about myself or about others, and when I see and hear it, I stop and think about what vision it is selling. If you think you deserve something, you won’t be grateful for it. Equally, if you think you don’t deserve something, that implies both that you have earned something better, and that perhaps other people do deserve the negative thing you’re experiencing.
We can’t create a culture of gratitude by outlawing the word ‘deserve’ or its brother ‘rights’. What we can do is sell a compelling vision of gratitude and hopefulness.
Talk is cheap, but words are costly. Let’s spend ours wisely.