Words and Actions

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.

Photo by Raphael Schaller on Unsplash

Scarcity Language

Words matter.

Words matter so, so much.

In general, our most oft used ones are created by and evolve to suit the needs of the dominant group. Those who practice polyamory are at times limited by connotations, hidden meanings, and the implied expectations that exist in the common language we use to talk about our love and relationships in a primarily monogamous society.

We are conditioned by this society to compete for affection. It doesn’t matter what your gender or your relationship status – you have been shown your whole life that the way you know you’re important to someone is that they chose you. And in our society, that they choose only you. This breeds jealousy, resentment, divisive competitions, passive aggressive behaviors, insecurity, and a host of undesirable feelings across the board.

And we reinforce this shit with the language we use every damn day.

So many of the phrases we use to express how we love each other work against the idea of abundance in love while perpetuating scarcity narratives. Words like “most,” “best,” and “favorite” set up a hierarchy of preference. You cannot have a most/best/favorite without something (or someone) else being “less.” And yet, this is how we let our sweeties know they’re important to us. By telling them they are these things. Number one in specific ways. This is ranking.

But is it necessary? I mean, it’s certainly not a thing we do to people in our lives who inhabit similar spaces in our hearts.

You don’t tell one of your children they’re the “best” at math – you tell them they are “so good” at math. Never would you say “you are my favorite child” – you tell them how they are important to you as an individual. We treat our platonic friends with the same grace, but why not our love interests?

For reasons that are probably way above my cursory education in sociolinguistics, we’ve developed hierarchical language for our romantic partners. But even monogamously, you can have more than one love of your life.

When Gene Wilder passed recently, he left behind Karen Boyer, his spouse of a quarter century, but was preceded in death by Gilda Radner. He married twice previously, of course, but most sentimental statements were about how he was finally with Gilda. It took me a while to wrap my brain around why I was so bothered by that. I am certain he never stopped loving Gilda, and I am equally certain he loved Karen with all his heart. That is polyamory, people.

So if you practice polyamory or identify as a polyamorous person, I invite you to examine the language you use to communicate affection to see if you’re incorporating these words into your exchanges. And here’s why . . .

When we use hierarchical language to reinforce the security of our partners, we create a situation in which they feel compelled to compete to maintain their status.  Rather than creating a more secure space for them, we’re perpetuating something tenuous and subject to change.

It took me quite some time to get used to the idea that I was safe and secure as an important person, as opposed to the most important person, in someone’s life. In fact, I don’t want to be the most important anymore. That’s a position prone to fluctuation with time and circumstance; it implies I have something to lose. Likewise, I don’t want to have my partners jockeying for position in my life. That is not how I experience joy. My happiness comes from all my people feeling loved and important and secure.

Like I said in the beginning – we’re at the mercy of the language we hear every day to express affection. That is the effect of a dominant narrative, but with all things, awareness is key. When we alter the subtle messages we put into the world, we change the whole pattern of our life’s fabric, and I do see some room for change here.

Besides . . . I love the whole world, so you’re all my mostest best favorite!