Kind Words Mean More than a Printed Christmas Card

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G. Donald Gale

Give the gift of words this holiday season — kind words.

Words form the foundation for all thought, all relationships, all emotions ... not only the foundation, but the walls, the floor and the ceiling. Too often, we toss words around carelessly, as if all words carried the same value. But some words are like darts, some are like cannonballs, some are like feathers and some are like trophies.

Choose the trophy words. They build better thoughts, better relationships and better emotions.

We hear too many angry words. They are the wrecking ball of thoughts, relationships and emotions. Technology often insulates the sender from the receiver. The talk show host can label a politician "idiot" because the politician is not in the studio — probably not even listening. But angry words are contagious. Listeners become infected. They apply the harmful word to other politicians as well. Soon, an entire class of public servants find themselves labeled "idiots." The political group is diminished. The infected listeners are diminished. And the nation is diminished.

Research shows that if we know a person — talk to him or her face-to-face — we are less likely to describe that person with harmful words. In today's complex world, we don't know, personally, most of those who shape our nation, our communities or our businesses. It's easy to direct harmful words in their direction. But all those who lead have friends, neighbors and families who sincerely believe they are good people.

Some hide angry words behind the screen of anonymity. Writers on blogs say things they would never say if required to sign their names. Spectators at sporting events scream angry words at referees. At a recent game, the referee made a call fans disliked. They booed and jeered. But the television replay showed the referee was right. One fan shouted, "Nice call, ref." And nearby spectators turned to stare at him as if to say, "How dare you speak the truth."

We hear criticism of so-called "politically correct" speech. The problem is not with the idea, but with the name. It has nothing to do with politics. It's all about common courtesy. For years, I used in speeches a joke where a child confuses the words "retired" and "retarded." The joke — aimed always at myself — never failed to bring laughter.

But after one appearance, I received a letter from a man who said, politely: "I wish you wouldn't use the word 'retarded' so casually. We have a son who was born with Down syndrome, and we find that word offensive. Our son may be different, but he is not retarded." To my shame, it had never occurred to me that "retarded" might be a cannonball word to some — even though I had grown up with a gentle uncle with Down syndrome. I never used that joke again.

Dr. Oliver Wendell Holmes told his medical students that good doctors must "learn to round the sharp corners of truth." That's good advice for all of us. Take some of the angry, hateful, painful words out of our vocabularies and replace them with more powerful expressions of friendship and hope.

In a book called "The Healing Heart," Norman Cousins wrote: "Words, when used by a doctor, can be gate-openers or gate-slammers. They can open the way to recovery, or they can make a person dependent, tremulous, fearful, resistant. The right words can mobilize the will to live. The wrong words can produced despair and defeat."

It is no different for all of us in all of our relationships. The right words can give a friend — or a stranger — peace, reassurance and joy. The wrong words can produce turmoil, doubt and pain. This time of year, especially, focus on words of peace, reassurance and joy. Instead of expensive Christmas cards or printed family narratives, send a short personal note. A sentence or two will do. Remind the recipient of something the two of you shared — an event, activity or experience. Tell him or her thanks for being part of your life. "Remember that fishing trip we took. We didn't catch anything, but we sure had fun. Thanks for being a friend." Those few words mean much more than any pretentious printed Christmas card.

You cannot buy kind words. But you can give them. And when you give away kind words, you still have those powerful, thoughtful, friendly, reassuring, positive trophy words to give again.

G. Donald Gale is president of Words, Words, Words, Inc. He was formerly editorial director at KSL. He earned a Ph.D. at the University of Utah and was awarded an honorary doctorate by Southern Utah University.