Words Matter?

One of the recurring themes of this year’s US presidential campaign is that ‘words matter.’ To the extent, in fact, that every word uttered by one candidate is sure to lead to a counter barrage of insults, indignant protestations, and scorn from the other side.

I’m a writer. In one sense, therefore, I do believe that words really do matter. With a caveat. They matter little if they are not part of an overall attempt to communicate. And it has become increasingly clear that neither of the current major party candidates, nor their armies of surrogates and professional politicians, is attempting to communicate anything of substance.

In the inductive world of Chinese culture, words matter far less. They are subordinate to behavior and always interpreted in context, largely calibrated through the lens of Confucian obligation. When I first arrived in China I was shocked, and sometimes embarrassed, by how people spoke to each other in conflict, particularly if they were strangers or had only a professional relationship. Voices are often raised; tongues can be biting; insults and insinuations are sometimes thrown with abandon.

But it was nothing compared to the first presidential and the vice presidential debates. At least in China I couldn’t speak the language very fluently so was spared the worst of it.

Over time, however, I learned to put it all in context and I became a lot more relaxed as a result. A little yelling and a few insulting insinuations no longer rattled me. And, in fact, I learned to use that fact in negotiation. The fact that I, as a foreigner, wasn’t rattled by the raised voices and insinuations, in turn, rattled the people I was negotiating with.

The truth is, the Chinese have it right. Words are not a product of nature, like rain, or sunshine, or the elements of the Atomic Table. They are a manmade creation developed for the sole purpose of facilitating efficient communication. Of and by themselves they are both meaningless and worthless; nothing more than an advanced form of stick figures scratched in the dirt.

What if Americans adopted the Chinese attitude that words are subordinate to context? Political campaigns, for starters, would cost a lot less than they do now. (There wouldn’t be any sense in running attack ads.) The big donors would have a lot less influence on the American political process and American life. And power would inevitably revert back to the citizens, where it belongs.

Political correctness would largely evaporate. People would be a lot less offended by the words we use and people would spend a lot less time fretting over what somebody meant. And, of course, the people who wanted to use words to hurt or bully would lose a powerful weapon.

In the end, as a result, I think people would be a lot more relaxed overall. There would be less stress and anger in the air than there obviously is now. And that by itself would be good for the country and our collective blood pressure.

Would putting less stock in words be a recipe for racism, sexism, the plethora of modern phobias, and the like? You mean, worse than today? It’s obvious that despite all of the angst about words we have an over-abundance of all of these things already.

If the current election has starkly exposed anything it is that we are a nation divided by our words. Nobody cares about context. The national stage has become the most hateful of all schoolyards.

But wait? Wouldn’t the politicians just tell us what they think we want to hear to get elected? Again, we have that now. When context disappears from the national dialogue there is no dialogue. There is only mudslinging.

Because when words mean everything context means nothing. And, as a result, you have literal truths that don’t really tell the complete story. You end up with narrow truths, which, when extrapolated, are false.

Linguistic researchers have long suggested that words account for only a small component of effective communication. Body language, tone, volume, context, and other less tangible factors collectively drive understanding.

Even with all of their consultants, opinion polls, and focus groups, our politicians seem to have largely forgotten that people remember not what you say, but how you make them feel. Ronald Reagan and Bill Clinton were both masters of the feel. The former inspired optimism, the latter made everyone he touched feel like they were critical to the cause.

And they did it through context. They never forgot to address the question of why they believed what they did. It’s a more fundamental and less superficial element of communication. The why, simply put, is how we make people feel.

This election will be no different than prior elections. The rhetoric won’t be the deciding factor. The words won’t be the deciding factor. They are, after all, just words. We will elect whoever makes us feel the way we most want to feel.

I think we all need to chill out, as my generation used to say. We will all be a lot more relaxed and civil to each other once we put context back into our dialogue.

A sign next to the Panda pit at the Beijing Zoo. In Chinglish, context matters more than words. It should be the same in politics.
A sign next to the Panda pit at the Beijing Zoo. In Chinglish, context matters more than words. It should be the same in politics.
I get it.
I get it.

Contact: You may reach the author at understandingchina@yahoo.com