This I Believe

Wendy - New York, New York
Entered on January 29, 2008

I believe in elocution: a person’s manner of speaking or reading aloud in public.

Why? Well, we all know that it matters greatly which words we decide to use. (The now famous book title, Eats Shoots and Leaves, proves that.) But how you say the words you choose matters too. I can say, “Come home now” and I can say, “Come home now” – and can they mean completely different things. Could you tell the difference?

It took me a long time to understand this. I grew up in a family where spoken words were flung like arrows into the hearts of others. The words themselves were bad enough, but how she flung them was simply unbelievable! So unbelievable, in fact, that the next day nobody could remember them. We all pretended that the arrows hadn’t penetrated our hearts or that they weren’t poisonous after all. She didn’t mean it. It never happened.

The result was that I grew up thinking that it didn’t matter how I said things, just what I said – and whether I was right or wrong. Others should listen to the content, rather than the tone. They should listen to the point I was making, the logic I was presenting, the reasoning that was so crystal clear. I shouldn’t have to be gentle or polite; I shouldn’t have to worry about smoothing someone’s rumpled feathers.

I was a technical writer for years and years. How convenient! There were no issues of tone, of diction, of loudness or softness. I knew that the words I wrote mattered – and that’s all that mattered. I didn’t have to deal with elocution at all. Both at work and in relationships, I thought that finding a kinder way to say something was not being true to myself. It was fake; a lie; a joke.

But I slowly learned that if I wanted to get something changed, if I wanted someone on my side – even if all I wanted was someone’s empathy – that it truly did matter how I said what I wanted to say. I learned that everyone has their territory, their vested interests, their areas of ownership and power, no matter how small or insignificant they may seem to you. I also learned that everyone has their emotional triggers, their sensitive spots, their feelings that need protecting.

I got better at saying some kind words; at showing some real concern; at giving some honest praise. I discovered that I wasn’t being fake because it turned out I really did care! And in the end, it turned out that life was a whole lot better this way…

So this I believe: pick your words and also your delivery. The delivery is more important than you think.