In a previous blog, we considered the act of listening. Now, let’s explore the other side of dialogue, speaking. Not public speaking, but rather the subtle dimensions of more personal language that tend to reveal so much about whom we are. A diversity of philosophers--Rabbi Israel Meir Kagan and St. Augustine, for example-- have emphasized that it is our ability to speak that differentiates us from animals. Not only can language set us apart; it can elevate or diminish us.
The use of foul language, for example, tends to lower a listener’s regard for the speaker. Our parents instruct us, from tender ages, not to curse or swear. Although the prohibition makes sense to me, I confess to using my share of "bad" words. Sometimes I do it for emphasis. Usually, though, a curse word signals that I’ve lost control of my faculties for patience and coherent expression. When that happens, I''ve come undone and tend to feel somewhat less than human because I’ve abandoned my abilities to maintain composure.
Still, for me, of greater concern than swear words are slander and gossip, language that maligns. Being an oncologist, I regard with great respect the verb "malign,” root of “malignant.” And I do construe slander and gossip as nothing less than malignant processes.
What lies at the base of slander and gossip? Why do we do it? First, slander and gossip are alluring. They can be a lot of fun. Comedy shows, sporting events, and other aspects of the media may entertain us by shredding names and reputations. Most of us want to engage in enjoyable activities, so it can require intense motivation for us to refrain from besmirching other people.
Beyond entertainment, when we ridicule someone else, we may be trying to divert attention from our own shortcomings. Slander and gossip can camouflage insecurity. When I think of times when I’ve ridiculed someone, I realize that, most often, I was taking advantage of an opportunity to deflect my own weaknesses, which I, myself, had subconsciously identified. As long as I’m capable of identifying my own weaknesses, wouldn''t it be helpful also to establish some kind of internal diagnostic testing and some therapeutic response more appropriate than ridicule? As the slander vector makes its way from my brain to my mouth, wouldn’t it be great if I could slow that vector long enough to unravel what I''m feeling about myself? Then I could intervene to block the hurtful words and to perform a little character repair on myself.
A more radical tool for blocking hurtful words is the "fast of speech," used by Vipassana meditators for centuries. If you think spending a day, like Yom Kippur, without food is challenging, then try experiencing a full day without talking. Or just try, for 24 hours, not to make even a single negative remark about another person. I did it once as an exercise and almost went out of my mind. Each time I caught myself, I realized how often I engaged in such petty chatter.
Developing mechanisms to avoid or even minimize slander and gossip gives us strength. What''s more, it prevents the phenomenon of "spiritual isolation" which can ensue when we speak ill of others; realizing that those people usually find out what we said about them, and conclude that they’d rather not be around us.
But the specific reason that I started thinking about speech and language today was related to my car. I drive a twelve-year-old automobile that’s beat up and barely functional. It''s a source of security for me, however, to know that I don''t need to buy a spiffy vehicle at regular intervals. And I find it amusing when a young colleague puts his hand on my shoulder and says, "Ben, you really should get rid of this clunker." But what can I say, it''s my clunker.
This afternoon, ''ole clunkie started acting up as I was parking it on the fourth level of the underground garage at my hospital. When I called the towing company, they wanted to know what was wrong. I said conclusively, "It''s not safe to drive it." When the mechanic inquired if I could be just a little more specific, I said "It''s vibrating." Frustrated by my vague terminology, he prodded me to indicate whether the vibration was resonant with a crescendo or more of a dissonant and constantly shaking process. Fortunately, he was quite nice about the whole business. Amazingly, armed with my description, a wrench, and a flashlight, he was able to decipher and remedy the problem.
The car experience made me think about how we all have our own ways of communicating. In the context of describing my automotive problem, my lack of even the most fundamental vocabulary rendered me mute. The situation is quite different when I find myself in a familiar context, like my clinic. But how many patients will have to suffer through my professional jargon before I realize that not everyone speaks Medicalese?
It seems clear that communication--including the precious words that we select and the cadences and very tones of our speech--requires us to be sensitive to the person who is listening to us. Just as we know how to tailor our language in extreme scenarios (e.g., speaking to a three-year-old, as opposed to, a judge), we can be attentive to the needs and idiosyncrasies of the people with whom we try to converse.
Speech provides not only the valuable gift of communication but also an opportunity to take stock of ourselves, to evaluate the degree to which we are willing to extend ourselves to others. Knowingly or unknowingly, we use speech and its subtleties to push others away or to draw them closer.