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Sticks and Stones

This is the first of a three part series on the state of humanity from a communication perspective.

Words. Individually or in groups, they are potentially one of the most destructive forces known to man.  At the same time, they can be the most beautiful, uplifting, even life-saving forms of communication.  Growing up, we lived by the mantra “Sticks and stones may break my bones, but names (words) will never hurt me.”  Somehow, this magical saying shielded us from the negative effects of names and words designed to insult or degrade us.  On the outside, we built our stone walls, defiantly ignoring these comments while sometimes firing a salvo of verbal missiles in return.  The more creative the retort, the more powerful its negating effect.

But, can we count on this magical force field?  Does the belief that words can’t hurt actually keep us from harm?  From a scientific perspective, the answer is no.  When it happens, the brain begins a series of reactions, physical and chemical, to prepare us.  The amygdala, an almond-shaped structure deep in the brain, receives the initial stimulus and alerts the rest of the body that trouble may be coming.  The hippocampus then encodes the threat to a memory to help us process it faster in the future.  This triggers a release of norepinephrine and cortisol, which increases heart rate, dilates eyes and blood vessels, triggers the production of sugar in the liver, and increases the oxygen capacity in the blood – what we have been taught to be the “fight or flight” response. When we encounter a negative situation that brings us stress or anxiety, our body reacts in many ways to prepare to deal with it.  Once it passes, we return to a normal state.  If we don’t allow it to pass, or it continues to be frequently present, the free radicals produced by this process remain in the blood and actually attack our body itself, increasing our risk of heart disease, anxiety disorder, high blood pressure, and a host of other medical conditions, most of which are preventable1.  Long after the chemical and physical changes have passed, however, the memory remains.

Why do we resort to such responses?  Follow any online discussion board, no matter how benign the topic, and when one person says something that someone else finds “stupid”, “uneducated”, or just “different from mine”, they resort to insults, often tempered with vulgarity.  As a teacher, I have often told my students that “the level of vulgarity used in conversation is inversely proportional to one’s intellect.”  Once they figure out what that means, they realize truly educated people are those that can share an opinion, hear a differing response, and come to an agreement, if necessary, to simply agree to disagree.  They see it is OK to share what you think and let others do the same, and to respect their thought or opinion if it is contrary to their own.  In the classroom, this creates a safe place for all students to feel comfortable enough to participate in a discussion in a positive way.

In the “real world”, though, this mindset leads to a completely different conclusion.  We have created an environment that seems to place value on one-upmanship, having a more creative insult, or devaluing another human being in the name of “just being truthful”.  We cling to the statement “Hey, sometimes the truth hurts.”  .  Is it possible, however, to share the truth in such a way that it focuses on the truth, rather than the hurt?  We see those willing to resist an aggressive, offensive response as weak, soft, or wishy-washy, and then resort to the standard barrage of name calling and insults. We see it all the time in politics.  Regardless of your political bend, each side seems to focus millions of donated dollars on smearing the name of their opponent and dragging them through the mud.  What a refreshing change it would be to see them all focus on what good THEY will do if elected and how they will make the government, the country, and the world a better place.  If I am going to hire you (through my vote) to lead my country and shape its future, I would really be more interested in what you are going to do when you get there.

Truly, stick and stone may indeed break our bones, but names will likely destroy us.  In part 2, we will look at how our positive or negative talk impacts our actions.


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