Reading the paper every morning reminds me how much words matter. Express a thought with one word, and it can conjure a whole different image than another word that describes the same thing.
In my local market, I can buy “Organic” vegetables, or I can buy “conventionally grown” vegetables.
Another word choice, another image:
I can buy vegetables sprayed with poison,
or I can buy vegetables that are NOT sprayed with poison.
Sticks and stones. Words matter.
Here’s another one.
A recent addition to the dictionary of U.S. Political slams is the label “flip-flopper” – a term to describe those who change their thinking throughout their lives. First you voted for it, then you voted against it.
Another word choice, another image: How about the word “Grown-up?” How about “Mature, thinking adult?”
The ability to keep growing and expanding our thinking by applying what we have learned is certainly a sign of maturity. We don’t have to go rigid as a 3 year old, staking our claim and screaming “I want it I want it I want it.” Grown-ups learn and (we hope) change their actions based on what they learn.
Same action, different label, different image. Words matter.
So what does all this have to do with the work of Community Benefit Organizations*?
Plenty. Just look at some of the words we use!
“We are integrating seriously mentally ill patients into the community at large.”
While such language may work as jargon with other professionals in the field, we forget that when we use those same labels with those who do not spend their lives doing our work, their image is often tremendously different.
The image in your mind, as the mental health professional, may be an image of work that is affirming, rewarding, compassionate, strength-based. But the person with whom you are speaking likely has a very different image indeed – perhaps an image described with the words, “NOT IN MY NEIGHBORHOOD, YOU’RE NOT!”
What if instead of the label “Seriously Mentally Ill Patients” that mental health professional said, “We are helping folks get their fullest lives back after they have learned how to keep their mental illness in check.”
The same holds true for labels like working poor and uninsured and recovering addict and all the other buzzwords and labels we use without thinking of their real effect on just plain old community members.
To have the most impact possible in our communities – to replace fear and bigotry with a sense of compassion and possibility – we must keep in mind the images conjured by our words. Those images matter, and that is why words matters.
Flip-flopper or “mature, thinking adult?”
Poisoned food or “conventionally grown”?
Uninsured or “my neighbor who works two jobs and still can’t afford healthcare.”
Sticks and stones may indeed break my bones. But in the work we all do, so can words.
* Speaking of words, if you’re curious about our use of the term “Community Benefit Organization,” this link will explain!