Language is a tool. We use it to arrange the world in our favor, to remember, to be remembered, to connect, to understand, to learn, to teach. I have a hard time conceptualizing what being human would be like without language. We’d be no more than amoebas bumping into each other. Language is our only means of escaping the boundaries imposed by the macro-impermeability of our skin.
We use words to get what we want. Or to try to get what we want. But we tend to do it badly, because the words we are comfortable with, the words that make us feel safe, are not the words we mean.
The cafeteria in our building has gotten dismal, so I walked across the street for lunch. I wasn’t there to see the sparking incident, but I got the aftermath: two grown men yelling at each other even as the distance between them increased, with one guy yelling behind him “you arrogant sonofa…” and the other waving his hand and saying “yeah, yeah, yeah.”
News flash: when you start insulting someone, they stop listening. If your point is to vent your annoyance, go for it. If your point is to communicate something meaningful, you might as well keep your mouth shut because all of the incoming channels shut down as soon as the attack begins.
Think of every person in the whole world like their own little mobile castle, fully armed and prepared for siege. They walk around with the gates half-open, but a guy standing behind them ready to pull up the bridge over the moat at the first hint of a threat. Words are the emissaries you send across the space. As long as those words feel safe, the gate stays open. As soon as the words become threatening, the bridge goes up, the gates go down, and while you can certainly lob some doozies over the wall, and they can create some lasting damage when they land, you aren’t getting behind that gate again until you can prove that you’re safe.
In my professional life, I talk about the author’s obligation to avoid creating resistance. As a writer, you create resistance when you make it painfully obvious to your reader that the voice they are hearing in their head as they read is not their own. You do this in any number of ways – by breaking the rules of suspended disbelief; by having atrocious grammar or spelling errors; by ignoring the logic of the world you’ve created; trite language; making your reader feel stupid… I’ve just realized that the list of ways to create resistance in your reader is impossibly long to document.
As a user of words, you have two choices: bump along as you were using the words you are comfortable with and confused as to why you aren’t getting through, or get strategic with the realization that, to get what you want, you’re going to get a lot further when the other party is receptive and the only way you can influence his/her receptivity is by doing your damndest to avoid creating resistance. You’ve got to be willing to put the work into thinking about it, thinking about what you are comfortable saying, what you mean, and between the two, which is going to be easier to receive on the part of your conversational partner.
Is it manipulative? Yes. But everything we do is manipulative. Manipulative doesn’t have to be a bad thing. Besides, when in the midst of a relationship negotiation, saying what you’re comfortable with is as much of a manipulation as deciding you’re going to say what you mean. If threatening to leave feels authentic, but you’re saying it because you want him to beg you to stay or because you’re terrified he’s going to say he wants to leave first… well, that’s a manipulation. So what happens if you kill the adversarial posture and say what you mean. I’m hurt and I’m scared and I want to be connected to you. Are you vulnerable? Yes. But no more vulnerable than when you were throwing word-bombs and hoping he’d hug you in response. At that stage, it is going to hurt anyway. You might as well say what you mean.
It’s like my uncle explained to my ex husband: you can be right or you can be happy. You can use the word strategies that you are comfortable with (and most of us are comfortable with a defensive verbal posture) or you can set your comfort zone aside and say what you mean. When it comes to love (of whatever variety), I think the connections are way too critical to risk. Tell your truth as gently and as honestly as you can. If you lose, you lose, but at least you lost on your best effort. I think that’s better than losing on a half-ass attempt. If you lose on half-assed, don’t you always wonder what you might have gained if you’d simply told the truth?
No regrets. Whatever it takes to get to no regrets, do that.