Sticks and Stones

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.

An example:
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!

6 Responses to Sticks and Stones

  1. Hildy,
    A “mature thinking adult” doesn’t constantly change his mind, or forget what answer he gave yesterday, or even which football team he wrote about in his book. I read your comment in another blog… McCain isn’t a “mature thinking adult”, he has gone past that, and is becoming an embarrassment to the GOP. Hopefully, they have a backup plan for the convention.

  2. Ron:
    Thanks for your note. My comment at Alternet was not aimed at McCain specifically, but at the use of language overall. Prior to the McCain Flip-Flopper article you refer to, I watched as Obama was labeled with the same ridiculous label. And so my comment was not aimed at whether or not McCain is a flip-flopper, but whether it is the most important thing to focus our limited attention spans on as we choose the leader that will help us build the future of our world.

    Name-calling may keep campaign consultants making good money. But it’s a lousy way to create the future we want for our world.

    That is what my comment was intended to convey. Thanks for giving me the opportunity to clarify that!

  3. Hi Hildy,

    I like your blog, and you are spot on with this. Words do matter. The words we choose are symbols for our experience, and symbols carry profound are quick conveyers of deep and sometimes multiple meaning and mixed messages(phonological abiguity=the sound of a word means something different than the way the word appears) Words frame our meaning so others can understand our meaning, and when we change the words we use, we change the responses that we get. So the words we choose to represent our ideas are critical to our ability to persuade others, and fundamental to what we find persuasive.

    This flipfloppy issue is an important one for another reason, too. A foolish inconsistency is the hobgoblin of little minds, but inconsistency itself is a signal to many minds about character and trustworthiness. I’m currently running a blog series on it at, starting with the claim against McCain, then about Obama, leading to my Wednesday post addressing the cost of inconsistency in persuasive communication.

    I love that this issue is getting so much attention right now. It seems we (most of us, not all of us) are finally getting down to exploring and understanding the issue and meaning of changing positions, and the specific issues on which positions change, rather than simply pinning the tail on the donkey (as happened with Gore and then Kerry) I am hoping for a higher level of discourse amongst my fellow citizens in the runup to this election. Trickery and mere accusations of flipfloppery are the low road. Here’s to an informed electorate making a wise choice in our next election.

  4. Dr. K:
    Wonderfully said, including and especially your last line! And many thanks for the well-considered approach to the subject at your blog.

  5. As someone trying my best to be a “Mature Thinking Adult”, I’m finding that elections and politics in general have little to do with my reality. Whoever gets elected must be dealt with and who can predict how all that will come out. So I’m kind of avoiding policics as we try to cope with the almost total failure of government in our neck of the woods. In the meantime…


  6. Ray:
    Living and working in New Orleans as you do, it is completely understandable. It is also why our mission statement at the Community-Driven Institute is what it is – that we believe the Community Benefit Sector holds the keys to transforming our world.

    While government has the potential to be that agent of community transformation, the influence of politics means that government can never decide whether transformation (or sometimes merely supporting and protecting its citizenry!) is, in fact, its role.

    The Community Benefit Sector is, in my opinion, the logical place to lead such transformation, simply because we have no restraints that tell us we cannot do so. No politics, no profit-motive – just pure desire to do good. What immense potential that is!

    Thanks for continuing to fight the good fight!