words matter

This blog entry has been sitting in my Drafts folder since mid-November. It started as a rant, and I do not like to publish rants unless I believe I am ranting about something particularly important. Still, there is a point that I think is worth making, and I believe I can tone down the rant and still make the point. My point is that words do matter, and they matter even in casual exchanges.

I had had coffee with my friend Lynn early on in my career transition phase. At the time I was focused on finding a position in Web content management. As the weeks wore on I saw that there were more positions open for technical writers than in my preferred area. I created a second resume focused on tech pubs and eventually emailed a copy to Lynn, since she had been a tech pubs manager before her layoff in 2009. Not that I expected her to have a lot of contacts in the field, since she had pretty much moved to retirement mode, but when you’re in career transition you do all the networking you can. Lynn’s response was: “I will keep you in mind if I hear anything.” I bristled at that response. She would “keep me in mind”? How lukewarm is that? Hardly a ringing endorsement.

She wrote “Hope you are…having some fun in the time you have. ” I bristled again. What? What does she mean by “the time I have, ” I thought at the time. Do I have some terminal disease that she’s aware of and I’m not? My colonoscopy came back fine. I know she meant until I find a new job, but that’s not how it sounded on my initial reading.

Then she mentioned “Terri.” Except that my wife is Terry. She knows that and has been receiving Christmas cards from us for years. And sending them to us and getting Terry’s name right. I reacted to that as just being careless. But it is still inconsiderate.

Speaking of names, we have received at least two Christmas cards bearing the name “Christie” without the name “Cobb.” They were addressed to “The Christies” or “Mike and Terry Christie.”  Terry kept her last name when we got married and our Christmas cards every year, as well as any other communication we send out, have always reflected that. Really, that’s just basic consideration for respecting an individual’s personal preferences.

I am aware that I, as the reader of an email such as Lynn sent me, bear the responsibility to take comments like these in context, and certainly I bear the responsibility not to be overly thin-skinned. At the same time, when we communicate via a medium like email (or Christmas card), I think we owe it to ourselves and to our correspondents to consider the words (and names) we use and not to hit Send (or mail the card) without looking at what we have written and doing a quick scan to see if there is anything might require attention.

Words do matter. By paying attention to our words we can, at a minimum, help to avoid hurt feelings.

2 Comments on “words matter”

  1. Tahoe Mom says:

    My first husband used to say, “Words don’t mean. People do.” And I agree. Except the words people use reflect what they mean. And so I can really identify with the name thing. I, like Terry, did not change my name when I married again. And the cards still come addressed with the wrong last name for me. Like Terry, I love my husband. I want to be identified as his wife – and I have my own name. And I want to be called by it.

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