Sticks and stones may break my bones, but words will always oppress me – amos

by | Jan 21, 2021 | Change, Ideas |

words matter

This week I’m trying something different. There will be a series of guest blogposts every other day from a good friend doing amazing work. I met Mo through Seth Godin’s Akimbo workshops – two aid workers in marketing workshops. Odd, but also instant connection. We’ve never met in person, but every time we talk I’m left pondering for over a week. Today is me (amos).

I like ideas, concepts, frameworks, dreams, and thinking deeply about things. As a teenager, one of my favourite experiences was being out with friends debating ideas and then arriving home to find my Dad reading in his chair by the fire and we’d carry on the discussion for hours.

And yet, I also find words annoying. I studied philosophy and theology in university. I loved it, but was annoyed with the words being used. A whole new language. Big words. Hard to pronounce. Harder to figure out the meaning. Most of the time I think people just took their left over scrabble letters, called in a word (who needs vowels anyway), and gave it some philosophical meaning. I drove my professors nuts by regularly asking what use these concepts and big words had for the person in the pub or coffee shop.

This has become a bit of a life theme for me. In my work in aid, we regularly create 100 page ‘manuals’ written by people with PhDs who are native english speakers. And then we give them to frontline staff who don’t have PhDs and for whom english is their 4 language. And we expect them to ‘pick it up’ as they read the manual. I rarely read these manuals and when I do, I often need to re-read some sections 5 times to understand what is being said.

And then there are legal documents. Procurement manuals. Safeguarding. And so on.

Words matter. They can unite or divide. The words we use communicate a lot about who we think our audience is or how much we have listened to them.

Our reaction to words other people use also say a lot. Whether that is reacting to someone who words are ‘broken’ because they are learning the language or they have an accent.

And then there are those amazing people who stand between. Translators. Translating from Creole to English to Swahali. Or translating from academic philosophy conceptual speak to everyday language. Good translators are worth their weight in gold (or bitcoin if that’s your thing).

Words matter. They can be used to divide or bring together. To hurt, belittle, damage. Or to encourage and uplift. No one goes to bed at night wishing they had received a little less encouragement during the day…

We can choose our words. We can choose to care enough about our audience in how we speak, write, communicate. And when we have events, meetings, interactions, we can choose to ensure there are translators present doing their magic.

The choice is up to us.

Photo by Brett Jordan


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