The Weight of Words

Suppose you and I are having a conversation, and I say one of the following:

  • Jeff is a resister.
  • Jeff is resisting.
  • Jeff said, "I don't have time for that."

Each sentence has a different effect on our conversation. Each carries a different weight.

The first sentence, "Jeff is a resister," declares what looks like a fact about Jeff. The present tense "is" says that resister-ness is an ongoing quality, perhaps a permanent one.

My choosing this one fact about Jeff, out of all of the things that are true about him, says that for the purposes of this conversation the important thing about Jeff is that he is a resister.

Finally, the word "resister" expresses a great deal about my point of view. By calling him a resister, I am expressing (implicitly) that I want Jeff to do something and that he is not doing it. And I am expressing these things not as truths about my point of view, but as if they were facts about Jeff.

So by saying, "Jeff is a resister," I am hanging my point of view onto Jeff as if it were a persistent truth about him, and as if it were the important thing to know about him. Those four words carry a lot of weight. They weigh down our conversation.

Let's look at the second sentence, "Jeff is resisting." I'm now characterizing not Jeff, but his actions. This allows for Jeff to be a manager, a father, an amateur trombonist, a former volunteer firefighter — a person. And it allows space for us to talk about Jeff's other qualities. It loads less weight onto Jeff and onto our conversation.

Still, "Jeff is resisting" carries weight. By characterizing Jeff's actions instead of describing them, my words express my point of view as if it were a fact about Jeff. And they says that, for our conversation, my characterization is the important thing to know about Jeff's actions.

Now the third sentence. "Jeff said 'I don't have time for that.'" Here I am describing what I observed. I am allowing for Jeff's many other qualities and actions to enter our conversation. The past tense "said" places Jeff's action clearly in the past, where it occurred. It's done. Compared to my earlier statements, this one leaves the conversation freer to go in many directions.

And this statement, too, carries weight. As Jerry Weinberg said, "Sometimes the most important thing about what you said is that you said it." When I say anything, my words bring ideas into the present conversation. Whatever my words say, my uttering them says even more. It says that I believe that the ideas I've expressed are relevant and important to our conversation. By singling out one of Jeff's actions, I'm am saying that this action is relevant and important to our conversation.

Words carry weight. In fact, that's the point of words: to carry meaning — and meaning is a kind of weight. I'm interested in the weight of words, how heavier words constrain our conversations, and lighter words leave us freer to be present with each other in this moment, to see what is here and now.

Experiment: For one day, notice the weight of your words. In what ways do your words express temporary qualities as if they were permanent? Express past events or conditions as if they were ongoing? Express your characterizations and point of view as truths about people, things, or events? How does this affect your conversations?

Experiment: For one day, notice the weight of other people's words.

Experiment: For one day, notice the metaphors that you and others use in your conversations. What weight do these metaphors carry? How does this affect your conversations?

Experiment: What does my metaphor of weight bring into our conversation? What does it leave out? How does this affect our conversation?

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