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On Language: A Primer for Careful, Thoughtful Introspection

If words matter–and you’ll find that I am very quick to contend that they do–then we ought to be careful with the language we speak. For some, this point might seem like something akin to an argument against profanity. I’m not (necessarily) out to destroy those with foul mouths–it isn’t my habit, and it is one that I prefer as strong emphasis rather than filler words, but if done with thought and a certain sort of intention behind it, a chosen “swear word” can pack the necessary punch to communicate precisely what was intended. (See here Paul’s use of the word ‘skubala’)

The words we speak to others define us, perhaps in more ways than anything else we do. This is doubly true in an age where much of our communication is remote; while letter writing has existed for many years, the sheer ubiquity of technological communication gives us reason to think about the nature of our language in a new way. I’m not concerned at all with bizarre text speak or hashtags, for what it is worth. What interests me has more to do with the frequency–once we were limited to letters, and before that the spoken word. Now we find ourselves tweeting, posting our statuses, and taking pictures of our daily food. Or, you know, writing blog posts. Communication is no longer limited to the important details. I can remember even as a child that we’d have to schedule time to talk with my Grandparents, who lived three time zones away. We barely wrote letters, but we had to make sure we scheduled our long distance phone conversations, since they were still relatively expensive. Now, my Grandmother is on the same cell phone plan as I am. I could call her up, and it wouldn’t even count against my effectively unlimited number of minutes. My Grandfather even texts.

These instantaneous ways of communicating all over the world give us great benefit. I don’t wish to decry technology. Really, I’m a big fan. I wonder about our unabated access to people all over the world, for good and ill. I’ve met and continue to build with people from all over the world that I would never have even had the opportunity to meet if I’d lived a generation ago (and not just because they hadn’t been born yet). But I’ve also managed to neglect the local needs; I can, in effect, live completely online, if I so desire. And that desire is often powerful, since living online is much easier. Physical presence is difficult. Even Skype can be a challenge. When I’m confined to composed written messages, even ones conferred quickly via instant messaging, I’m much smarter. I phrase things better. My language is sharpened, even if it doesn’t show in every post that makes it to these pages.

If I phrase things less precisely when I am forced to speak them in conversation, how much more so do the stories I tell myself exist in this rough fashion? This is the actual point of this whole thought project: while the words we speak to others define us, the words we speak to ourselves ground us. And words spoken can be measured, cautious. We can correct them internally before they ever escape our scrutiny and enter into the space by which we are defined. But those initial thoughts, the ones that require corrections, to those I hope to turn our attention.

Our thoughts are immediate. There isn’t a barrier between what you think and, well, what you think. If your first instinct to a compliment is to internally (or externally) rebut it, you can learn something about yourself. What you learn may not be quite so clear: you may dislike yourself, you may believe the other person does not know you well enough to offer up an accurate compliment, or maybe you know that they are incorrect as a matter of plain fact (the last one happens the least often, though we convince ourselves of it on occasion). The point is that the way we react to everyday comments about ourselves can teach us much about who we think we are, at the deepest level.

The stories we tell ourselves throughout the day differ still from the ones we offer up in the quiet, solitary spaces. After all, even our instincts shift slightly when we are in social situations. This is true not just in our body language, but in the way we think and react. So those moments when we are alone, when we have nobody stepping in and influencing how we think and act, those are the times when our stories most clearly represent who we believe we are. Those stories have the most potential energy, so to speak. We can encourage ourselves, or we can deeply harm ourselves.

We ought to seek to tell ourselves truth, first and foremost. Dishonesty in your internal discourse will only sow disconnect with the real world. If there’s a good reason for you to tell yourself something that is difficult to hear, it is often better to hear it and face it head-on, rather than to obscure it with lies. But one step we can take (and this is one that I really believe we should take) is to choose how we frame our own stories.

Perhaps an example will help. I spent a few months last year unemployed. There was a temptation–one that I succumbed to on a number of occasions–to frame this in terms of failure. I took the objective facts–that I had graduated with a degree, run out my time on temporary employment, and was still unable to find a job that was a good fit–and spun them in a way that centered around the lack, rather than the direction. I consistently (though not constantly) told myself that I was a failure, that I hadn’t succeeded, that I’d wasted my time and money on my degrees. I felt as though I had nothing to show. It was an immediate and constant enough reaction to my own life that I couldn’t even see the problem: it wasn’t until a friend was helping me prepare for a job interview and opened with “So, what brought you to Colorado?” I instinctively reacted: “Well, I graduated last May, then worked at a library under temporary employment, and when that ran out, I had no money and no job. So I moved in with my brother.” Those are all true statements. But notice how I phrased it: I am hesitant, rather than confident, right off the bat with the opening “Well…” The majority of the statement isn’t framed around direction or even accomplishment, aside from the graduation. It all reflects how I viewed myself, on some deep level: I was, at this point, a failure. My lack of job wasn’t a reflection on the job market, or on the particular requirements I had: it was a reflection on me.

My friend was insightful enough to see this, and point it out. He suggested I frame my answer around finding a job that was a perfect fit, for both myself and the company, and that in the mean-time it made the most sense to spend time with my family. All of those descriptions maintain the facts of the situation–the truth wasn’t sacrificed here–but they frame my life in terms of potential and direction, in spite of the current situation. It took me quite awhile to come to terms with that modified story–and I needed to make it my own by changing some of it–but the advice was formative. As I worked on telling myself a new (but equally true) story, I really found a new sort of confidence. And this was true even before I happened to land the job.

The point, then, is two-fold: first, you must look at and listen to the story you are telling yourself. Are you representing truth? If so, could you phrase that same truth in a way that reminds you of some higher truth: that you are made in the image of God, that you are valuable, and that even in times of hardship you will be cared for?  Second, sometimes you will need someone else to point it out. This, however, can only happen if you have friends who are close enough to do this or are insightful enough to see it. Sometimes we need to be that person, but rarely can we see someone else’s deepest story if we aren’t first aware of our own.

Third, and perhaps the point that is the toughest for me to practice, we must continue to examine and evaluate the stories we instinctively find ourselves in. We must look for the truth of the situation and the slant to that truth that we ourselves provide. This is an ongoing process, of course, but a habitual reframing will eventually become instinctive. And as we tell ourselves better stories, perhaps the stories we tell others–from a distance, with increasing frequency–will be more and more encouraging.

Published by

J.F. Arnold

James received his MA in Philosophy of Religion at Talbot School of Theology in 2013. He holds a BA in Biblical Studies from Biola University, and is a graduate and perpetual member of the Torrey Honors Institute. James blogs on a number of subjects, including technology, theology, and hip-hop. He has written for Biola’s Center for Christianity, Culture, & the Arts, The Gospel Coalition, and he is an editor for Mere Orthodoxy. You can also keep up with him on Twitter (@jamesfarnold).

  • Oliver_Haddo

    This mode of communication is rather passe these days… also “careful” and “thoughtful” translates as boring. Listeners are liable to tune out. What guarantees attention today (with Babalon and will on the ascendancy) is authenticity, originality… power and penetration of thought. Vulgarity, profanity get a pass if the narrative strikes home.

    Academia in general doesn’t do well in the pundit sphere because an overly cerebral and studied approach suggests detachment… a lack of real world connectedness. A speaker could be giving voice to unadulterated truth but if it is packaged along self conscious lines and tends toward the abstract it might get five hits a day… if. This is the aeon of “do what thou wilt”… the old law is dead, the old “god” is dead… there is a new dynamism, a new current that is unresponsive to old aeon ways of communicating.

    Love is Law – Love under Will.

  • April

    Thank you for writing this. I can be a bit obsessive about using precise language, and I consider myself a relatively optimistic person. However, so much of what you’ve pointed out in this article hits home for me. Your words have made me reexamine the way I frame the story of my own life. Being honest with myself is still essential, but framing the overall story in a more positive way suddenly seems like a revolutionary idea! This is what God wants for His children, not shame and guilt!

    “…could you phrase that same truth in a way that reminds you of some higher truth: that you are made in the image of God, that you are valuable, and that even in times of hardship you will be cared for? ”

    This is what God wants for His children, not shame and guilt!

  • jamesfarnold

    There are times when shame and guilt are appropriate, of course.

    I know that I tend to focus on those, however, rather than on the redemption offered to me.

    Glad you enjoyed the piece, though. I’m optimistic too, for what it is worth, just mostly about other people.

  • hyma

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  • hyma

    language learning propositions are the basic and fundamentals issues which are guiding the people as well as the students in every possible way to do well in future. In order to make the process flow better and smoother above mentioned guidelines and the course of actions are very much effective along with productive. Needless to say this types of actions needful to all the people who are in hassle and danger. i need someone to write my paper for me from online.

  • Robert Conner

    There’s a footnote about Paul’s use of skubala in this essay:

    https://www.scribd.com/doc/269575794/Christianity-s-Critics-The-Romans-Meet-Jesus-by-Robert-Conner

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