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What are words worth? A question of communication

We go through life trying to communicate with each other. We spend most of our days communicating either by speaking, reading or writing. We try to use methods to communicate our thoughts or messages to others through all the media available to us. Our messages need to transcend others’ thoughts and cultures and other roadblocks we as humans place in the roadway.

It is our intention in communicating with others for our information to carry a meaning to them, with the hope of sharing a thought. There are many obstacles that can block our clear communications, such as  cultural differences or our understanding from where we are in life.

My 3-year-old grandson Evan started the pre-school program at Gaston Christian School this week. He was feeling insecure and troubled about going from his usual play school to a more structured pre-school program. Of course, he didn’t know why he was troubled except it was a new experience. His parents kept telling him he was going to a “big boys school now.” They were telling him he was now a “big boy.” He was stilled troubled.

After the first day, his dad asked him, “Were you scared at school today?’

Evan replied, “No, I wasn’t scared. After I got there and saw the other boys, they were all little boys like me. There were no big boys in my class.”

His fear was generated by a lack of communication with the term “big boy.”

The parents thought “big boy” was a positive step forward. Evan thought “big boy” was bigger boys who might pick on him or take his toys.

The late language expert, college president and U.S. senator S.L. Hayakawa, is quoted as saying, “You guys are both saying the same thing. The only reason you’re arguing is because you’re using different words.”

At this time in our history, we have come to a point when trying to be so politically correct might be blocking our communication. Maybe we would be better served if we all, in a civil manner, spoke our minds with words as honest as possible and said what we feel. Simple words can be so tricky to interpret.

Several years ago while I was working at the Salisbury Post, a young African-American reporter came to work. A few of us were in the newsroom talking and getting to know each other with small talk, and I talked myself into trouble with the nicest of words.

I was telling the new reporter about Frankie’s Chicken Shack being a wonderful place to eat and get dipped chicken. All very positive, but I said the Chicken Shack was a black owned business. My intent was positive. An African American-owned business, to me, was a very positive thing to  say. The new reporter quickly reported me to the editors as making racist comments. I was called into the editor’s office and drilled. I knew I was not a racist, and the editors knew I was not a racist, but office protocol said there was a complaint about me and it had to be dealt with.

Needless to say, after that experience I was very cautious and hesitant in sharing any information with the reporter. I didn’t know how to communicate with her.

At the recent “Healing Conversations” meeting at Hood Seminar, I thought back to the event with the new reporter. I thought I was saying something good and very positive, but I offended her.

While in college at Catawba, I had a communications class where we used a textbook written by Hayakawa. In his early writings, he was dealing with the Hitler propaganda from Nazi Germany.  He explained that if we hear incorrect information long enough— no matter how wrong it might be — we will eventually accept the information as a fact.

Hayakawa said, “If our ideas and beliefs are held with an awareness of abstracting, they can be changed if found to be inadequate or erroneous. But if they are held without an awareness of abstraction—if our mental maps are believed to be the territory, they are prejudices. As teachers or parents, we cannot help passing on to the young a certain amount of misinformation and error, however hard we may try not to. But if we teach them to be habitually conscious of the process of abstraction, we give them the means by which to free themselves from whatever erroneous notions we may have inadvertently taught them.” (From “Language in Thought and Action”)

It is clear that much of our written history about the heritage of the South and the causes and results of the Civil War are not always totally accurate. Much of the history has been flavored to make it taste better than it was. Especially during the 1960s as the 100th anniversary of the war was approaching, history writers chose not to write too deeply into the ugliness of slave holding and why we went to war anyway, but instead wrote about the bravery of our ancestors in defending their homeland.

My ancestors were Quakers at that time, so they had a different take on the Civil War. They didn’t have slaves and didn’t want to fight.

The soldiers on both sides, Union and Confederate, were very brave men, and that cannot be denied now or in history.

“If you see in any given situation only what everybody else can see, you can be said to be so much a representative of your culture that you are a victim of it,” writes Hayakawa.

Hayakawa, in his work titled “America,” wrote: “Society, in short, regards as true those systems that produce the desired results. Science seeks only the most generally useful systems of classifications; these it regards for the time being, until more are invented, as true.” He was referring to the United States definition that any person with “a small amount of Negro blood … is a Negro.”  Why was it that a person with a small amount of white blood was not white?




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