More than a word

Unpacking what we mean when we use certain words is key to healthy dialogue

February 12, 2014 | Young Voices
Matt Veith | Special to Young Voices

Recently, I posted on Facebook about the term “friend zone.” I’ve often heard it used to victimize guys who can’t deal with rejection and vilify women who turn down “nice guys.” For example, “I heard she totally friend-zoned him the other day.”

The post has nearly 40 comments now, with more than 70 likes.

Many people concurred with my take on the matter, but just as many shared a different understanding of the term. For some, it meant being led on, only to be thrown to the curb later. For others, it was a term for grief and heartbreak. One person bravely identified sexual advances and abuse within her understanding and experiences of the term.

What intrigues me about this discussion has little to do with the friend zone, but rather with how a term can stand for so many different, often contradictory things. I question if the terminology we use in our increasingly wordy discussions on complex issues actually works as well as we think it does to communicate what we are actually trying to convey.

A friend recently pointed out to me that you can express your “love” for pizza and “love” for God using the same word. It’s a simple example, but it shows how important modifiers, context, tone and articulation are to situating a word. What does someone perceive when I say, “I love God”?

Doublespeak is a phenomenon in which the meanings and connotations of words can be distorted, made vague or completely altered. Take words like “green,” “smart” or “inclusive,” for example. They connote generic positivity, but through excessive overuse they no longer denote an articulated definition.

Then you have the opposite, where a word clearly stands for something specific, but its connotations practically redefine it. I once had a conversation with a friend who cringes at the terms “boyfriend” and “girlfriend” because they invoke the stuffy, rigid and prescriptive relational mores she grew up hating.

At a recent forum discussing the LGBTQ dialogue in the church, I suggested that a lot of the staple language and terminology in the conversation harbours unexamined deeper definitions and connotations. Terms like “boundaries,” “acceptance” and “sin” are like icebergs: They are seemingly straightforward in their specific definition, but hiding under the surface lies a mass of unvoiced and diverse experiences, emotions and subjectivity.

You couldn’t, for instance, bring up “sin” without also examining “judgment,” “grace,” “forgiveness,” “morality,” “desire” and more. My hunch is that the LGBTQ dialogue in the church is continuously protracted and ineffective because these terms need to be unpacked.

Going deeper in these conversations is complicated and unglamorous for a variety of reasons. People of my generation want to be politically correct, in-the-know and up-to-speed on the latest hot terms. We’re less patient than our parents and value concise confidence in our text-based, fast-paced social media culture. To do this, we bank on the right word—devoid of larger context, body language and tone of voice—to convey the nuances of what we really mean.

When we sit down and talk through a lot of issues, we expect to get a lot done quickly. I certainly do. Like people who think a good camera will take good pictures, we think the right words can solve everything. I’ve been in too many discussions with nodding heads that end in confused disagreement. However, I’ve also heard, “That’s not what that word means for me! What do you think it means?” That gives me hope.

We need to learn to drop our self-assured, cosmopolitan sense of urgency and be willing to have an entire conversation when we feel a word would do.

Those who make—and remake—the words, rule any discourse. But no discourse should be ruled. As Anabaptists, we work for reconciliation through nonviolence, pacifism and a love of justice. Dialoguing towards reconciliation requires a corresponding reconciliation of language through a patient, unassuming flexing of eloquence and articulation, recognizing the inseparability of words from their subjective definitions and experiences.

Matt Veith is a Mennonite missionary kid who grew up in China and now lives in Winnipeg. He graduated from Canadian Mennonite University (CMU) in 2013 with a bachelor of arts degree in communications and media.

--Posted Feb. 12, 2014

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