Whether it’s a judgmental mother-in-law or an acquaintance whose compliments are more back-handed than your tennis swing, we all know someone who could benefit from an afternoon (or six) with Miss Manners.
The absolute worst are those who wear their “b*tch badge” like it’s a medal of honor. Maybe they claim they have no filter. Maybe they speak their minds in the pursuit of utter honesty. To the former, I implore you to strive for greater self-control than a toddler. To the latter, not everything needs to be spoken. And just for the record, saying: “I’m sorry, I’m just being honest”—isn’t an apology at all.
What’s ironic is that mean people rely on those around them to possess the tact and grace that they themselves lack. People who learn to police their words provide balance to those who don’t. Imagine if, when your mother-in-law criticized your housekeeping skills, you reacted by saying her meatloaf was so dry, it was like eating sawdust.
It would be World War III.
So why don’t we all go around saying exactly what’s on our minds, offending each other with every syllable uttered? Well, Bambi’s best friend, Thumper, said it best: “If you can’t say somethin’ nice, don’t say nothin’ at all.” This is a principle of behavior parents the world over have espoused, probably since the beginning of time. When we’re young, we’re taught to say thank you for unwanted gifts, and not to comment about things like Uncle Sandy’s bald spot or Grandma’s overpowering perfume.
Because no good comes from hurtful words. Because be kind is not just a childhood rule. Because, along with being old enough to vote or drink, we don’t earn the right to be careless in our word choice. In fact, I’d argue that as adults, we are more accountable for our words, not less.
But wait…what about honesty?
As it seems with most existential contemplation, I really started thinking about the importance of honesty in my interactions with others as I approached my (ahem) 40s. I began to worry that, by withholding my true feelings—and in turn, my tongue—I was being inauthentic. A fake. A phony.
Case in point, I was recently at my son’s school and saw a mother who does a bang-up job making other moms feel like, no matter how hard we try, our parenting will always be inferior to hers. (Never mind the fact that her children are rotten.) What did I do? I said hello, asked after her children and smiled at her saccharin comments.
Was I wrong?
Because. There’s a difference between giving an honest reply in response to a question and being intentionally mean under the guise of honesty. When I ask my husband if “these jeans make me look fat,” I expect him to tell me the truth. I’d rather know and change my clothes before we go out than turn heads (and not in a good way) in public.
Because. The words we choose speak volumes about our spirit. Remember my worries about being inauthentic? It turns out, they were unfounded. I had only to look in the dictionary to gain a better perspective and put my mind at ease. I think that’s a problem many of us have, not understanding what authenticity means, and—in our ignorance—screwing up in our pursuit of it.
Authentic means true to one’s own personality, spirit or character.
By this definition, mean words imply a mean spirit. There, I said it—and for me, responding to a mean mother with my own barbed remarks isn’t consistent with who I want to be, in personality, in spirit or in character. If we choose to nurture a kind spirit, then we should we choose to speak kind words.
Henry James said, “Three things in human life are important: the first is to be kind, the second is to be kind, and the third is to be kind.”
Imagine how gentle the world would be if we all followed his advice.
Author: Melissa Aird
Editors: Yoli Ramazzina; Catherine Monkman