Posted in A Day In the Life

What We Say and How We Say It, Matters

The courage to speak out is not reserved for leaders and warriors, business people or celebrity. Sometimes the message comes from a common individual, who is willing to push back against the norm to shed light on what is wrong and troubling.

At least, that’s the pep talk I’ve been giving myself. Recently, I summoned the courage to confront someone about their hateful words. I believe in free speech, but I also believe that we should be vigilant in our businesses and organizations to encourage kind speech, and discourage hateful speech. Words can be used to communicate and uplift, or they can be used to hurt and destroy.

You don’t have to look too far in this country to see the creeping normalcy of name-calling and insults used to describe fellow humans. Worse, you don’t have to look too far to see that people will condone this kind of behavior with excuses like “he’s just passionate” or she’s just being authentic.” And what of silence and inaction? Isn’t that condoning too?

We live in coarse times where “please” and “thank you” are little remembered relics of a distant past. And what about “I’m sorry?” Does anyone pause anymore to reflect upon his or her own behavior, reconsider and apologize? It seems like doubling down is more the order of the day and that it comes with no regard for conscience. I don’t know how I would have celebrated 30 years of marriage without an apology readied on my lips, but I digress. . .

This short piece could be about our political climate, but really it’s about a microcosm of that climate in my personal life.  Harsh and hateful language caused me  to call out someone I worked with in a volunteer organization. The words were not directed at me. They were used to describe and elderly couple who had volunteered for our organization. The couple hadn’t committed any crime other than being at the low-end of the economic ladder. What they were called and how they were described would cause me embarrassment to write.

In speaking up I realized that I was not going to be able to rise to the occasion of the organization’s mission being more important to me than basic human decency, so I left. I quit. And it’s in the aftermath of my decision of doing what I believed was the right thing, that I now grieve the loss that comes with such a choice.

Courage is not born of emotional or physical strength. It’s often demonstrated in the throes of fear. It includes the element of loss, because speaking out for what you believe sometimes leaves little choice but to separate yourself from the offender.  I believe that words have power and that how we speak to each other determines the quality of our society. I am not without a stain in my interaction with the person who used such hateful language. In a moment of shock, I told him that he should be ashamed of himself. There was undoubtedly a better way that I could have handled it, and for that I am sorry. When I look back, however, I wonder if any word choice would have caused him to pause, or if he would have doubled down anyway.

When did we become so inept at general kindness? When did we become so harsh in our rhetoric? Are “please” and “thank you” really dead? Do we waste our time and our breath in calling out vitriolic, hateful speech or should we simply be living by example? When are our silences about such things a wise choice and when are they complicit? And most of all, how do we nurture the collective heart of human kindness so that we stop talking like school yard bullies and start talking as if life and love mattered?


Novelist, essayist, blogger, wife, dog-mommy, dancer, dreamer, grateful.

17 thoughts on “What We Say and How We Say It, Matters

  1. This is such a difficult issue and I relate completely to the dilemmas you express. I think it’s always been hard to speak up because it so often seems that people using hateful language and images just get more entrenched when they are confronted. But when that type of behavior is condoned or dismissed by those in powerful positions, it becomes even harder. It’s always good to know that we aren’t alone in this struggle!

  2. Basic manners have disintegrated since the 2016 election. People feel they can say or do anything and there are no consequences. The next leader will have lots of repair work to do.

  3. Thought provoking article Stephanie. I’ve been in the same situation and left an organization because of words spoken by another that I chose not to fight. Looking back I wish I had stayed and fought the battle of words, but I preferred peace to confrontation. May I find the courage to speak up against injustice when the occasion demands it.

  4. I agree that words have power. They can linger with us for decades. Who doesn’t remember the hateful things that were said to us as children? And like you, I worry if we don’t speak up about them, it could appear that we condone them. So good for you for speaking up, though I’m sorry it led to you leaving the organization. But better to know you did the right thing. You’ll sleep better at night.

  5. We live in a ME FIRST society and unfortunately that all too often leads people to believe they have a right to put others down for various reasons. Even our politicians govern by using class warfare, media insults those of us without college degrees etc.etc. It is a shame. Good post.

    1. While, yes, it is a shame — I am heartened by how many people here and on Facebook have responded as you have. Maybe we are not as alone as we think we are. Thank you for sharing your goodness.

  6. I admire your strength in speaking up. I hate fighting, but the few times I have stood up and matched a bully word for word, have involved cruelty directed at a weaker person. Afterwards, I was always somewhat astonished at myself, but also proud.

    1. I think that’s what was the most disturbing for me — the bully going after a weaker person. I wrote about this to sort through my feelings, and as the day has wound on, I felt good, like I did the right thing in speaking out.

  7. There is a totally wrong resolution to this situation, albeit more common than we know probably.
    This person is the ultimate bully and has probably been this way all their lives.
    I feel so annoyed in the fact that you had to make the decision to quit your role with what sounds like a loving and caring organisation.
    Bullies are best left in your wake Stephanie, you can only hope the words you chose and how you said them that day, give this guy something to think about.
    Meanwhile you go forward with dignity and consolation that you gave yourself permission to tell this rude, judgemental man just where he should put his bad manners and see if he can pull out some respect for people instead.
    You give me strength and make me feel proud to care, I am always grateful too Stephanie another lesson you taught me
    Hugs from
    Annie in Australia 🌴🌞🌊❤❤

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