I think few people know better than writers the power of words. I’ve talked about it briefly before, that word choice is important, that words have a way of shaping a person’s mood or attitude, but I spoke about it in a positive light. Today, I’m feeling a little moody, so I want to talk about the negative impact of words.
This isn’t about to be a diatribe on bullying. My general thoughts on bullying are “don’t”, but having been accused of bullying at least once, I think I may not know enough about the topic to really be able to say anything insightful about it.
I do know a thing or two about words, however, and how they can impact ourselves and the people around us. Most particularly, words we use to identify ourselves or others. By nature, humans like to categorize things, organize everything into neat little boxes, there’s a lot of research and literature on why and how we do this in the social sciences that I’ve been forced to read about this semester (I say, as though I’m not thoroughly enjoying myself). Mainly it’s an adaptive mechanism in our brain designed to save us time from having to constantly process a new stimulus if we can associate it with previously encountered stimuli.
We tell ourselves not to judge people, that it’s a bad thing, but we naturally do it. From the instant we meet a new person, based on their initial behaviors, their appearance, speech, so on and so forth, we shuffle them into one of our pre-categorized mental boxes and treat them as we have treated others that we met prior and stuck in that same box, regardless of if they actually belong in there or not. Now, if we get to know them better, their box may change, or we may always keep them in that box and our treatment of them will cause them to react in an increasingly predictable way, thereby reaffirming them to that box.
Yet, there’s little thought given to how our putting them in that box, keeping them in that box, and treating them accordingly, may be further affecting or shaping them. Are we perpetuating their place in our mind?
These boxes I should probably clarify are identifying words such as: cheerful, gloomy, outgoing, shy, kind, or mean.
None of these identifying words actually mean anything themselves. They carry with them an array of traits. If we note a couple of those traits in a person than we attach that identifying word to that person (stick them in a box with similar stimuli) and suddenly the whole cast of traits is applied to them.
Take cheerful for instance, it relates to a mood, a feeling at a given point in time, but when it becomes an identifying word for an individual, the traits that become attached to them are kind, polite, energetic, nice, good-hearted, and overall happy with their life. When we classify a person as “cheerful” we come to expect them to be happy all the time, nothing gets them down, silver-linings all the way. I have a friend who is typically categorized by others as “cheerful”, but in reality, she’s just very good at pretending. If she’s in a bad mood, she forces a happy smile, even if she hates a person, she’ll be polite to them, chat with them as though they’re her best friend and roll her eyes behind their back, agree even when she disagrees.
I do want to stop here, and point out that, in now knowing these things, people may be inclined to attach negative identifiers to her (thereby proving my claim that we like to shove people into ready-made boxes), majority of people in the world do the exact same things as she does. A great deal of social interactions in our world are made successful by lying, acting, and biting one’s tongue.
Although we identify a person as cheerful, that isn’t necessarily who they are. However, in being identified as cheerful, she’s treated as a cheerful person, and in a sense feels obligated to continue behaving as a cheerful person would. Now, that isn’t such a terrible thing, because in her life she is overall happy, but consider if she weren’t?
How many people have kept up the facade of being cheerful, because that is their identity, though inside they were completely miserable and crumbling to pieces? More so, how many of these people’s true emotions were ignored because the people around them had them categorized as “cheerful”, treated them as cheerful, thought of them as cheerful, and never questioned any possible cries for help because, they were categorized as cheerful and according to that category, they were happy.
I’ve had another friend that was generally categorized as cheerful, but inside she was drowning. There were signs that she was falling apart, we heard odd stories about her increasingly erratic behavior, but shrugged it off because, well, she was a cheerful person, and it probably didn’t mean anything. We could explain it away because overall we were certain she was a happy person. Cheerful people always are. She eventually had a mental break, and though, thankfully, no harm came to her or anyone else and she now lives back home with her parents hopefully getting the assistance she needs to better herself, things could have turned out far worse.
People don’t fit in boxes. You cannot attach a single identifying word to a person and expect that person to always be perfectly explained by that word. Judging a person when you meet them is natural instinct but if you can recognize when you do it, then you can curb your need to organize the world into boxes and start seeing people for who they really are.
As writers, this is especially important in character development. It can be very easy to create characters that fit into these neat boxes, after all, we can organize our world as perfectly as our compulsive categorizing mind desires. The noble hero, the crafty villain, the delicate damsel; but just like people, characters don’t (at least they shouldn’t) fit in boxes either.