Words can do much more damage than sticks, stones

This column was originally published as part of my “Looking Homeward” series at Herald-Dispatch.com.

The captain entered the following information in the ship’s log: “The first mate was drunk today.”

A few days later the first mate read the log and found the statement written by the captain. He then entered the following in the ship’s log: “The captain was sober today.”

That’s known as communication—negative communication. Although his words were true, what the first mate communicated was false.

Remember the childish jingle, “Sticks and stones may break my bones, but words will never hurt me.” Can’t locate the author’s name. No wonder. Had I written those lines I wouldn’t want credit either. That’s the biggest bunch of nonsense ever compiled in thirteen words!

Sticks and stones may break your bones, but words can tear you limb from limb, reputation from reputation. The writer of Ecclesiasticus 28:17 puts it into focus, “Many have fallen by the edge of the sword, but not so many as have fallen by the tongue.”

No power is as great as the spoken or written word. Wars are started with words, and ended with them. Families are broken by words; careers smashed by words, relationships torpedoed with words and peopled are killed because of the use, misuse and power of words.

We hurt people in two ways with words. First, we say negative things about them in plain and simple language. “Did you hear what so-and-so did?” Then proceed to tell what we’ve heard, often adding our two-cents worth to the story. Everything we say about the situation may be true. But do we need to tell it? To pass it on?

People like to pass on tidbits of gossip for many reasons. The most common reason is that knowledge of a secret, in some people’s thinking, is power. If they know something you don’t know, they have power over you. And to tell what they know puts them front-and-center in a conversation, the power-place.

The second way we hurt people with words is by asking questions. “Is so-and-so about to be fired?” “Are the Browns having marital problems?” No basis of fact is needed to simply raise the question. And, you haven’t said anything negative about the person. You’ve just innocently asked a question.

Yet, if we look at the context closely, those words are steeped in innuendo and ripe for unhealthy replication. Soon, after two or three mouth-to-ear recitations, the question mark is dropped from the statement. And the merry-go-round is at full speed, blaring background music and all.

Give me sticks and stones any day. With a good doctor and a few weeks of healing, broken bones can be as good as new. But words? Sometimes the damage is permanent, beyond the reach of a skilled physician or the power of healing.

When you start to pass on information about another person, ask yourself three questions. Is it true? Is it kind? Is it needed?

If you answer yes to all three, then tell it. Maybe!