Verbal Land Mines

Verbal Land Mines

Snapshot. Scene One. You’re standing behind a police cordon holding people back. Everyone’s yelling, pushing, hitting. That man hurling what looks like a Molotov cocktail at an army truck full of soldiers could be your Uncle Jack. And might that sweet, young girl over there be your cousin Susie, the one trying to push someone else out of her way? Who painted that portrait of hateful disdain around the eyes and mouth of that bully throwing ugly epithets at those not like him? He has your dad’s eyes, doesn’t he?

It’s war – and war is hell.

Scene Two. Consider the family dynamic. Wow – another kind of war, but war, just the same. Just spend a holiday (even just a weekend) with your family – all of them at once – and you’ll be tip-toeing through a debris-field of unspoken accusations, slights, and perceived injuries you thought were dead and buried long ago. Guilt trips of all kinds.

And when the fighting stops?

Scene Three. Both fields, the battlefield as well as the home field, are littered with land mines, hand grenades, unexploded bombs and missiles. Shrapnel. Pits and craters in the earth, buildings hollowed out, burned. Walls knocked down. Streets littered with battle’s debris. Damage caused by the words we have used – words breeding resentments that linger, words harboring unresolved issues that fester making ripe fodder for the next go-round.

And of course, there are those words we fail to say.

The wrong step – or the wrong word – and everything blows up in your face. Bodies litter the ground – your ten-year-old self, the twenty-year-old you became. Your sister as she looked when she was twelve. Your wife at thirty-three. Your brother, father, mother, grandparents.

It’s easier to hone in on the big blunders that undermine the familial tree. Like ignoring your spouse at a dinner party in favor of that “handsome/pretty young thing,” (or having a fling with that “handsome/pretty young thing”), forgetting Mom on Mother’s Day or giving her a gift card to a restaurant instead of taking her there yourself, or letting the fact that you have siblings somehow slip your mind. Obviously, these aren’t things one can fail to recognize as problematic.

But the little things we don’t perceive as significant are easier to kick under the rug, easier to be missed: yes, your butt does look big in that. What? I’m sorry. Did you say something? What I have to say is important, and your words, not so much so, which is why I wasn’t really listening to what you were saying. Your words fell through the cracks, fell down the well.

No, these things will not endear people to you, not even your relatives. Especially your relatives, who are less likely to gloss over your self-centered behavior. Your rudeness.

Scene Four. The family gathering replete with hurt feelings, perceived inadequacies, and hurtful comments that, inadvertently or purposefully, undermine their object’s self-esteem, or render them unworthy. Talk about verbal land mines!

Is meaningful communication even possible any longer, or are too many of us engaging in quasi-conversation that floats on the surface of things? It’s easier that way sometimes. Meaningful discussion requires thoughtful consideration and responses. More work. It requires taking turns which no one seems to want to do. Heaven forbid, you should have to wait to talk instead of trying to drown others’ words out by tramping over them with your own. Must we always be the ones at center stage?

Unlike the horrific reality of war fought with guns and missles, this one doesn’t have to end with the bloodied remnants of who we thought we were lying in bits and pieces on the battlefield. It doesn’t have to result in our friends and relatives bloodied and broken in the muddy trench at our feet.

We can photo-shop the photographer’s snapshot by curbing our nasty tongues and our impulse to attack or to blindly defend.

Let’s begin. What will we crop first?


3 thoughts on “Verbal Land Mines

  1. Edward Grether

    “We are injured and hurt emotionally, not so much by other people or what they say and don’t say, but by our own attitude and our own response.”
    -Maxwell Maltz

    Over many years, more than a few people that has come to know me have (rightly?) described me as “gruff”. I am one of those people that tend to speak my mind with the full expectation that the person that I am speaking with thinks as I do (..never said I was smart, did I). I try as best I can, to take a criticism as a helpful thing rather than a personal attack and I have a tendency to shrug off comments that are of no real use to me, especially if they are not directed specifically at me. Kind of the way rain roll’s of a duck’s back.
    I remember my father frequently admonishing me to use kid gloves when it came to other people’s feelings, the other people usually being closely related to me in some way, or complete strangers. So, I TRY to make a conscious attempt to “think before speaking”. Often excessively contemplating what effect my comment might have on the person I am talking to.
    No doubt due to my apparently built in “gruffness”, I am at times only partially successful at the “kid gloves” thing. But I do try! I really do!
    Unfortunately (or fortunately?) a byproduct of this has led to me being a less than spectacular conversationalist. So I tend to be quiet.
    O.K. so now I am “quiet” to many or “gruff” to those that know me. Not such a good thing I suppose.

    I guess being a bit less thoughtful of what others think of my comments might have led me to be a better conversationalist? Maybe?
    Would it have been better if I put more stock in to what other people were saying to me, about me, around me?
    Do other people consider me to be cold, uncaring, mean because of my quietness or gruffness?
    Should I take offense to the fact that others don’t think the way I do, or that they just don’t realize that I am kind enough to put thought in to what I am going to say to them, to keep their feelings from being hurt?

    I guess what I am trying to say is that, I believe, there are many different ways for people to respond to the words and actions of others. The confusing part is to figure out what is the most useful action for yourself? There are things about myself that I MAY, with great effort, be able to change. Such as my quietness? And other things that I believe are built in (gruffness) that are relatively permanent.
    Ideally, I believe that if we all would spend less time contemplating what we are going to say (kid gloves) or what/why the other person said what they did (should I take offense!), then the rest of the problems would matter that much less. Maybe?

    (This is the part where the sun comes over the horizon on a clear blue morn, the birds are chirping, sunflowers swaying gently in a warm breeze…)

    … On the other hand, we could just ban the production and use of testosterone and estrogen, dole out large doses of Prozac to the population, SHOOT the damn birds (they make too much noise anyhow) and cut down the flowering weeds to save money on allergy pills!

    …or all act like duck’s…

    Thought provoking blog Linda! Very nice.

  2. howardaldrich

    “She is opinionated, as most of us are, but you won’t find yourself impaled on her arguments; she doesn’t charge at you as some people do. What [she] does is walk slowly and steadily into a conversational battle, somehow managing to deflect all incoming targets until she is standing in your corner with her flag dug firmly into the ground. I think it comes from the deep-seated confidence she possesses in her core. I think it is the powerful combination of encouraged individualism and a strong family unit.”
    ― Carrie Adams, The Godmother


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