The power of the written word

The Bible has a lot to say about how we ought to use our words. The book of Proverbs is full of wise sayings about the power of the tongue.

The one who has knowledge uses words with restraint, and whoever has understanding is even-tempered. Even fools are thought wise if they keep silent, and discerning if they hold their tongues.  Proverbs 17:27-28
The words of the reckless pierce like swords, but the tongue of the wise brings healing.  Proverbs 12:18

feather-pen-vector-546939It was English novelist and playwright Edward Bulwer-Lytton who, in 1839, wrote “The pen is mightier than the sword.”

Today, when most of us are holed up at home waiting out the Covid-19 pandemic, the written word is being used more than ever. We FaceTime and we Zoom, but we also use written platforms like Facebook and Twitter to connect with one another.

For some of us, writing is our preferred method of communication. We find it easy, but others may struggle to express themselves clearly. Without the visual and auditory clues that go along with face-to-face communication, misunderstandings can happen very easily. We definitely need to cut one another a bit of slack.

For example, a friend recently responded to something that I said on Facebook with a comment that could easily have been taken in two completely different ways. I had no way of knowing whether it was written in jest or meant to be extremely hurtful. If we had been talking face-to-face, I would have been able to tell based on her body language, facial expression, volume, and/or tone of voice. To tell you the truth, I still don’t know what her actual intent was, but because I know her and I don’t think of her as a mean person, I gave her the benefit of the doubt and assumed that, even if it fell a bit flat, her response was meant to be funny. Had I concluded that she was being nasty and responded in kind, I could have easily destroyed a relationship!

I love a good online conversation where people can express their views, have them heard, and willingly listen to the views of others. Unfortunately, however, what could have been a meaningful dialogue often becomes nothing more than a battle of words. Why is that? What can we do to prevent hurt feelings and misunderstandings? I have a few suggestions. If you have others, please add them to the comment section below.

  1. If you disagree with something that someone else has written, don’t react immediately. Take time to think about it first. Is there any truth in what they’ve written? Did they actually mean what you thought they meant? If you’re not sure, ask for clarification instead of immediately going on the defensive.
  2. Avoid getting sucked into arguments. Sadly, some people are willing to go toe-to-toe online in ways they’d never dream of doing face-to-face.
  3. Understand that your sense of humour isn’t universal and that, without cues like facial expressions and tone of voice, what is intended to be funny might not come across that way.
  4. Don’t comment on someone’s spelling or grammar. Sometimes the English teacher in me wants to take a red pen to the screen, but this is just plain rude! It’s also a tactic that’s often used by commenters who simply want to belittle someone they disagree with.
  5. Edit your responses before you post them. (There’s that English teacher again!) Read over what you’ve written. Does it actually say what you want it to say? Is it clear or could it be open to more than one interpretation?
  6. Distinguish between fact and opinion. Just as we should all know the difference between a news article and an editorial, we need to be clear when we’re the writer. If you’re declaring something to be a fact, be prepared to back it up. If it’s opinion, say so and remember that everyone is entitled to have one even if it’s different from yours. What a boring world it would be if we all agreed on everything!
  7. Remember, posting online is the same as speaking in public. If you don’t want something to come back and bite you, don’t say it online!
  8. Don’t be that person who always has to have the last word.
  9. Don’t drink and tweet! If you’re impaired in any way, whether it be from lack of sleep, a fight with your partner, or one too many drinks, you run the risk of saying something that you’ll regret. Resist the urge and wait until you’re in a better frame of mind.

8 thoughts on “The power of the written word

  1. Wise words, though many won’t heed them, unfortunately. True about the sense of humour. I have seen many things clearly labelled as satire or published on “the onion”, which is one of the more well known satire news websites, where people commenting completely missed that part and are all riled up as if it were true news. Many must learn to read critically and fact check before dumping their 10 cents into the comments.
    Posting is like public speaking, except to a potentially much larger audience over which you have no control, should your comments go viral. Also, all these thing are saved indefinitely and attached to your name forever even if you change your mind and grow more mature over time, the things you post can be looked up by future employers, voters and political opponents if you ever decide to run for office, potential mates, etc.

  2. This is another excellent post! My mother taught me to think before I spoke, a lesson which I am still working to perfect. Nothing should be written or spoken in haste. I agree about seeing the body English when talking with someone. Sometimes it is best not to say anything but ofttimes it’s all you can do not to express your opinion.

    • One of my father’s favourite sayings was that it was better to remain silent and be thought a fool than to open your mouth and remove all doubt! As you say, however, there are times when it’s very hard to be silent!

  3. As always, an excellent message!
    It’s very true – we need to be so careful what we say and how we say it.

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