This is a guest post by Eileen Hegel of Higher Ways. I met Eileen when we overlapped on the Clemson faculty for a brief period of time. We got into a conversation on Facebook about the power of words in a diversity context.. and I asked her for a guest post. Here it is.
Words have power. We have all said or heard the words fat, ugly, skinny, beautiful or perhaps gay. The impact of words, even just one, should not be overlooked as they can speak hope or hatred.
Without a doubt, words can inspire us to forge ahead or instigate failure. I am positive we can all think of words that have ignited our heart. In the same fashion, I am sure we can reflect upon words that have fueled a fight. Hence, the British writer, Rudyard Kipling noted, “Words are the most powerful drug used by mankind.”
Recently, I had an opportunity to become reacquainted with the power of my words. Herein, I said something that sparked a mini-wildfire in a person. Shortly thereafter, another word, this time a missing one, caused me some challenges with the same person. I knew that I had set off the fire alarm once again!
In both instances, one word triggered a set of emotions. Words have an interesting way of doing this. The trigger may go beyond what we see on the surface. In fact, words often do.
Whether two people know each other or they don’t, words can be like a match. Words have the power to either kindle the fire of friendship or scorch a relationship. How we handle words may be the difference between saving a soul or in some cases, sending the relationship into ashes.
Although I can think of times when my words have blackened some bridges, maturity has for the most part, taught me to pay attention to what I say. Even with care in the use of my words, they will always have a transactional effect. Hence, words make for an interesting fuel between two people.
In fact, I will never forget the time my words truly stoked a spirit. While teaching a group of alternative students, I let 13 year old, Jeff, know I enjoyed him in my class. He told me, “No teacher has ever told me that!” I secretly understood why, but nevertheless, I meant what I said.
The next day, my boss let me know she had received a call from Jeff’s psychologist. The psychologist wanted her to know that in his 20 years of counseling, he had never seen a kid turn around so fast. He wanted to know what the school and his teacher were doing. Unbeknownst to me, Jeff had been suicidal before he came to my room. That day, I knew, that the power of words were, indeed, the power of life!
I do not claim to understand the entire context or meaning of this quote, but here is what I take it to signify: When you witness injustice, you do harm by not saying anything.
My friends and I have been talking about this a lot. There are situations at work when people say mildly (or even acutely) offensive things, ranging from “hi, girls!” (to a group of female faculty members or staff) to stronger displays of who is in power, who is allowed to speak, and who is too low on the hierarchy to be right.
We all recognize that when things like this happens, it is wrong to let them go. We should say something. We should speak up, cry foul, use the opportunity to educate and raise awareness of how to communicate in an inclusive workplace.
But how do you do this when the people you are talking to are your colleagues (which translates to superiors, if you are not tenured), and when you are a woman, and this means you risk being labeled as “bitchy” as soon as you say something that’s perceived as unpleasant.
I’ve read a blog post from a woman in a tech company that recommended replying like a man would do, humorously, with something along the lines of: “dude, not cool.” I don’t think that would work in academia.
I know from research in communication that the solution is to provide training to recognize these situations and to teach people specific lines they can use when they are flustered and shocked and can’t think of anything to say. I wish I could post here a collection of such lines, but I do not know of any.
Do you have links to any resources that can help, or any experiences we can learn from?