Language, bad words and communication

Language is a funny business. It evolves, changes, grows (and dies); what we can be sure of is that language reflects society – and culture. Take, for example, swear words. In English there are several and their meaning often depends on the entire sentence or on the context F**k or Shit or Bitch, for example. There are words that could be defined simply as exclamations that we utter (or shout) in frustration (as F**k! Shit! or Damn!) and there are others that represent insults (Shithead, Bastard…).

As a side note, yes, I have explained swear words to my 8 y.o. daughter – and sometimes she does utter them, I am afraid – but I have drawn a line on words that imply belittling someone, threatening someone or insulting someone. Not all swear words are equal in their capacity to inflict emotional pain, after all. Obviously she is aware that these are strong words and she is not in the habit of using them; yet, yes, as it happens to me, there are instances where the F*** word appears to be the only appropriate one.

I have chosen this route, because language is power. And, yes, swear words are powerful words. Social reaction aside, apparently they lessen pain and help us achieve more, so if you are hiking and the path is getting steeper and steeper the F*** word might actually help you get to the top. (thank you Dr Emma Byrne).

However. Precisely for the same reasons, I have put a limit on words that aim to actually inflict emotional pain to others; so basically insults and alike. Because, indeed, language has power. Of course, context is important. If you are talking about dogs and you say “bitch” it does not elicit the same reaction as to when you use the same word as a way to address a person.

Communication and violence

It is somewhat strange to think that context can have so much power over meaning. Yet, apparently, it does. Think about a mother yelling to her children “If you break that I will kill you”. She obviously does not mean it literally. Right? Her children should not get tooooo scared, because, you know, it is their mum after all. Yet. Yet, the gut reaction is one of fear; then the brain engage in reasoning, when it happens to be ready for this and lessen the fear. Or to put it better:

“If the word is taboo or offensive, that automatically triggers a reaction in the amygdala,” says Donald MacKay, a cognitive psychologist at UCLA. Buried deep, just above the brainstem, the amygdala is involved with strong emotions, especially fear and threat detection. After encountering a swear this structure sounds the alarm, making your brain work overtime to scrutinize the situation. You even break out in a light sweat.”

When this keeps happening, however, children become numb. This does not mean they don’t feel fear, this means that they tune out. It is, sadly, a common process; the same happens with repetitive yelling, for example. It happens because in the presence of repetitive violence our brains cannot cope and have to tune out. (1)

Communication can indeed be violent. Funny thing is, to put it very very briefly each form of communication is indeed a quest for something; most often than not communication is a way to get our basic needs fulfilled – belonging, feeling heard, feeling loved… Unfortunately when we are not clear what we are after, communication can turn into a mess (I have found it extremely useful “Nonviolent Communication: A Language of Compassion” by Marshall Rosenberg).

Language can be violent – even when (or especially when) we think we don’t really mean it. Take another example, a parent yelling “Are you stupid?” to their child; give the parent a few moments to calm down and they would obviously realise they did not mean it.

A commitment to change

Parenting is incredible, because it is such a huge (and hugely important) occasion to change; to have a very neat and clean look at ourselves and commit to peace, to presence, to being. Many, many parents are choosing peaceful parenting, attachment over obedience, understanding over compliance… there are many labels, yet the same objective: to treat our children with kindness and respect so that they can grow into kind human beings. It is tough. This is one reason why, to me, to go through such a process and not apply it to all human interactions is a loss. To commit to parent differently, more consciously, and then to treat other fellow creatures (humans and not, we are all the same) without the same care is a missed opportunity.

Parenting is not the only occasion for us to have a deep look into ourselves, mind you. Life gives you this sort of opportunity very very very often (I’d say daily), regardless of your status. Take, for example, a person stuck in traffic, yelling to another driver that looks as if is blocking the lane “Fuck off and die, you moron”. Obviously they don’t mean it literally, right? They are venting, there is frustration, anger. Yet, each time we swear or use violent expressions, “the words you utter offer privileged access to your emotions, laying bare your covert internal experiences, unmediated by rational and deliberate planning” and there is violence in that sentence. I hear you, “It is just an expression, they didn’t really mean it”; is this enough though? Apparently no: “Twists on the classic Stroop color test, which challenges participants to ignore the meaning of a printed word and name only its color, have shown that people take longer to get through an NSFW (Not Safe For Work) list than they do with lists of neutral words (banana), or even emotional words (death). The slow down happens because an ancient part of our brain, the almond-shaped amygdala, can’t help but register curses as threats.”

There are several expressions we use that we are not meant to understand literally. At this point, though, do we really need them? If they don’t actually say what we actually mean, why do we even use them? What would it happen if the person that yelled discovered that the other one had just started to drive after a major surgery and found it hard and stressful?

I wish we could take the leap and become more conscious in our communication. I wish for us to become more mindful and to simply eliminate violence from our communication (and, of course, from society). Wouldn’t it serve us better? This could be the start of a magnificent journey into ourselves and our lives with the capacity to change, well, everything.

We always have a choice. We can always embrace empathy, a deeper consciousness, presence and see where they lead us. I still think it would be a majestic opportunity to see new landscapes, to rediscover our humanity and to build something new. If not now, when?


(1) It is also a process of disconnection – and not only from the concerned person or their own feelings. If we can allow ourselves to conceive that the entire world is energy and vibration, then it is not too hard to think that language does vibrate and does leave marks. Thoughts, words have power. After all, what are prayers and spells if not words?

Original photo by Icons8 Team on Unsplash

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