LESLIE CRISS: A great life lesson: Think before speaking

By Leslie Criss

“Words are like eggs dropped from great heights; you can no more call them back than ignore the mess they leave when they fall.”
– Jodi Picoult

“Actions are the first tragedy in life, words are the second. Words are perhaps the worst. Words are merciless.
– Oscar Wilde

“If we cannot end now our differences, at least we can help make the world safe for diversity.”
– John F. Kennedy
Last fall at the University of Maryland, a campaign commenced to help students become more aware of how words can hurt.
The primary purpose was not to police; nor was it to squelch spontaneous speech.
It was simply to offer insight into certain words and phrases, and how they might seem offensive or hurtful to others.
Now we all know there are folks in the world who speak knowing full well what their words mean – and giving not one whit what hurt may be wrought.
Some folks choose to reside in darkness and don’t opt for enlightenment.
Others, however, may speak without giving much thought to what their words mean. Like some of the college students in Maryland, who once they learned just how their words affected others, apologized.
Need examples? “That’s so retarded.” Or “that’s so gay.” Or “that’s so ghetto.” Just to name a few.
When I was a kid, I heard a phrase from time to time that obviously stuck with me through the years.
One of the people I had heard use the phrase was my grandfather. When I heard him say it, I sensed no animosity or prejudice.
The following confession is an embarrassing one because I consider myself fairly well educated. And I believe I’m a seeker of enlightenment.
But for many years, I never thought about – or questioned – the origin or meaning behind the phrase.
I realized the true meaning – and offensiveness – of the phrase only when I said it to a dear friend.
I was packing up my belongings, about to leave Vicksburg to head north for a new job. My friend, Lesley, who happens to be Jewish, stopped by to visit, spotted one of my favorite pieces of antique furniture and asked where I’d found it.
As I began telling the story of how I’d discovered it, asked the price and purchased it, I used the phrase I’d not before given thought.
“I expected the price to be too high and I was all prepared to jew the seller down.”
The moment it left my lips, I understood, but too late to suck the words back in.
Lesley said nothing, didn’t even flinch. So, I left it alone. But not really.
For the next five or six years, I worried about my words. Finally, on a visit to Vicksburg, I apologized to my friend.
She claimed she had not even noticed and said it would not have mattered anyway, “because I know your heart.”
But it mattered to me – the thought of my words, spoken out of ignorance, hurting another human being.
Kudos to the University of Maryland’s Inclusive Language Campaign. I hope others will follow your example.
leslie.criss@journalinc.com