Recently I encountered a meme urging folks to fall in love with a person’s actions instead of their words. One’s actions, of course, speaking louder or being more indicative of a person’s character and intent. The person sharing the quip remarked that they loved words, and that words are often themselves an action.
In my opinion, words can be precarious… in the study of sociolinguistics there are speech acts, intent, and impact. The ways in which these play against each other in discourse are what give words their power. In guess-culture environments where plausible deniability is wielded to defend passive aggressive statements against confrontation, many of us grow distrustful of words at face value.
When the negative impact of someone’s words doesn’t match their stated, positive intent, it can be tempting to wonder if they actually meant to hurt you. As you can imagine, asking for confirmation of that generally doesn’t lead anywhere good.
The individual experience of processing the meaning of words yields another opportunity for things to go badly. I can say “I will always love you” but someone might hear “I will never leave you” because to them, that’s what loving someone forever means. When I leave I am a liar, even if I still love them.
Words not matching actions are often this misalignment of understanding. In relationships of all kinds, bringing clarity to a situation with language is beneficial, but when someone’s understanding of your agreements is at stake, it’s critical.
One time on an anniversary trip, a partner asked if I minded them making a quick call at some point to a recent romantic interest. I said I did not, but in my mind, “quick” meant 5-10 minutes, and “at some point” meant while I was otherwise occupied. Unfortunately, “quick” meant a half hour and “at some point” meant right before bed our first night in a new city. I did not handle it well. When they returned to the room, I lost my shit and it all but ruined the rest of our time together. To be honest, I still have feelings of anger about it – but those are with myself for not ensuring I understood what they meant.
To me, their actions did not match their words, nor did they fit into my unspoken expectations for their behavior. However, my partner did exactly what they said they were going to do, and I had said it wasn’t a problem.
I learned a very valuable lesson: make sure the definitions of the words being used are understood by both parties to be the same. Failing to do this has caused friction numerous times in my relationships, and I’m really only beginning to do a consistent job of asking for clarification when I know a misunderstanding could lead to a negative outcome.
There are plenty of times when it doesn’t matter, right? If someone says they’ll check out a book I’ve recommended to them, I don’t need to know when they plan to do that or if they ever did. But recently, due to my current standards of risk exposure during quarantine, a partner I still have contact with asked me if I was comfortable with someone stopping by briefly to say hi if they met outside at a distance and wore masks. I responded that I didn’t think that was a problem, no – then I remembered the phone call. I returned to the conversation to ask what they meant by “briefly” and was told anywhere from 5 minutes to an hour. Briefly to me had meant around 5 minutes, but again, I was projecting. Had I not gotten that clarification, our ability to spend time together during quarantine would have been compromised.
The truth is that as a writer, I do love words. Comforting, incendiary, inspiring, and sharp; the power they have is a wonder. I’m not always in love with their complexity, or the labor involved in second guessing them. I have learned not to imbue them with power that is not inherent, and I try not to fall in love with them until I know what they mean.