There’s a difference between “Love ya!” and “I love you.” There’s a difference between “See you later” and “I’ll miss you while you’re gone.” And there’s a difference in the way you say “Thank you” as a reflex versus when you really mean it. Humans are sensitive in nature; we feel a change in the air when someone is about to deliver bad news and most of us do a double take when the letter “k” shows up on our phone screen but its round and comforting counterpart “o” does not.
Understanding the impact that your words have on others is invaluable. Words can be hulking, burdensome even, like a big pile of bricks. However, if used correctly you can build something with those bricks —maybe even a staircase— and use them to uplift those around you.
Apologies: The Do’s and Don’ts
As the saying goes, “When you do somebody wrong, make it right.” The first step in doing that is by letting them know you’re actually sorry. There are two parts to a real apology: the intention of resolving the problem, and the feeling of remorse because you know you hurt someone else.
Do: Offer a way to repair the damage. Simply put, talk is cheap. There is always something that can be done, no matter how small, any effort helps.
Don’t: Use the word “you” before using the word “I.”
Notice the difference between these two statements:
- “I’m sorry I made you feel like I didn’t care about you.”
- “I’m sorry that you feel like I don’t care about you.”
Obviously, the first one is better because the perpetrator takes responsibility for making the injured party feel bad. The second example demonstrates some mild gaslighting. By using “you” before “I” the speaker undermines the whole point of the apology. When you’re apologizing it’s because I did something to you. Swapping the order of those words messes with the way that apology gets processed, whether intentional or not, it places the responsibility on the injured party, in a dangerously subtle way.
Do: Include why you’re sorry.
Providing an explanation of what went wrong proves that you aren’t just saying sorry, you’re saying that you know your actions were wrong.
Don’t: Ask for forgiveness. Forgiveness is something that is earned, not given. Asking for forgiveness makes you seem disingenuous, like you only care about clearing the air for the sake of your own breath. It’s not up to you whether you’re worthy of forgiveness, which is fine, because that should not be the main motive behind your apology anyway.
A handwritten letter weighs one ounce, and a text message quite literally has no physical weight. The feeling of being left out and unwanted is like walking around in rain boots filled with water — quite heavy indeed. The cunning art of saying things we don’t really mean comes naturally. Likewise, the ability to detect when someone isn’t being genuine is pretty instinctive as well.
Just three words can be so heavy that they cause an invitation to crumble: “…if you want.”
Adding this phrase can make the invitee feel like their presence at the function isn’t wanted by the inviter. Oftentimes that isn’t really the case, like Jimmy Eat The World once, “It’s only in your head you feel left out.”
The best way to invite someone and make sure they know they’re wanted is to include words like “you should come…” and “I want…” and provide any information you know at the time of the invite. Details make the abstract concrete and prevent unwanted miscommunication.
When a friend or loved one is angry, it’s natural to want to diffuse the situation as quickly as possible. However, situations like this can quickly go wrong because of the words we choose.
Here’s a list of phrases to avoid using when speaking to someone that’s upset:
“It’s not that big of a deal.”
“You’re just acting like…”
“Everything happens for a reason.”
All of these phrases feel invalidating and dismissive. Instead express empathy, or say nothing. Just listen.
It’s important to keep in mind that anger is often just a front for a greater war. Consider the possibility that grief, insecurity, sadness, etc. could be the driving forces behind an angry outburst from someone.
It’s easy for intentions and tone to get lost in translation, but the right word choice can guide any sentence safely home. Reach out to VALLEY on Twitter @VALLEYmag and practice using your words thoughtfully!