Before school age, dear ole Mom made sure we understood the sticks and stones children rhyme, that words can’t hurt is if we don’t let them.  Words, whether intended as harmful or helpful, are as real as our imagination, and left open to interpretation.  As Bill Clinton famously said, “it depends on what the definition of is, is.”

But only when we give it to them

Some of us use few words, others lots of them.  Some of us carefully construct our words, others don’t give them a second thought.  Yet most of us don’t write, read, listen or talk with dictionary precision.  Even if we did, we form and develop our own pictures.  The words we sting together form an image in the receiver’s brain which is different from the picture of the brain that constructed the string.  The meaning behind every strung together jumble of words is unique to the eyes and ears of the beholder — resulting in distinct mental images.

When we give them permission

We also tend to fill in the blanks with the stuff that isn’t said, the juicy sub-text.  Lawyers try to eliminate blank-filling with terms, conditions, and agreements we’ve all got to check or acknowledge when we commit to something.  A mumbo jumbo of words most of us never read, nor would understand.

The subliminal messages we send and receive through facial expressions help fill in what isn’t said, so when the face is absent, the meaning of words is especially elusive.  Within families, those close enough to conceptualize similar images, many times utter “what I meant was.”  Throw in different backgrounds and cultures and our imaginations slip and slide all over the place.

We all have times when we choose our words carefully, least they be taken unintentionally.  Still, they can come back to bite us, because our image of those constructed words didn’t match the receivers image of those same words.  How could they?  They will never match.  The best they can do is point in the general direction.

Yelling “the house is on fire” means something with an immediate call to action.  But most of our dialogues are filled with much less life-threatening urgency, where we each paint as we go, with different brushes, stokes, mediums, backgrounds, and imaginations.  No two pictures are ever the same.

Post message?  Don’t take words too seriously, or at least give them plenty of leeway.  They are concepts.  And they will never hurt us, unless we give them permission.

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