When Words Are the Problem / by Michelle Cowan

You’d think that, as a writer, I would say, “Words are the solution!” But no. Sometimes—in fact, most of the time—they are the problem.

We have all of these words—all this language—and yet, how many of us actually manage to say what we mean? History is fraught with misunderstandings, he-said-she-said, bogus interpretations, poor phrasing, and flat-out carelessness. Think Shakespeare, think Jane Austen, think Three’s Company.

How many times has the person you’re speaking with heard things you never said? And how many times has adding more words only made a bigger mess?

We communicate via so many channels all of the time. People read body language, pauses between words, eye flickers. We can move and touch each other in ways that communicate infinitely more than twelve pages of writing ever could. Despite the infinite communicative capacity of our bodies, we find ourselves in a world centered on words.

Phones remove faces from conversation; texting goes even further. We have to convey personality with the words and symbols we choose, which often provides an inaccurate reflection of the true emotions at play. We give up very few secrets; whereas, in person, the truth is often easier to detect.

Thank goodness for video on the internet, or else the Web could completely collapse into a tangled scrapheap of words, where real people no longer exist, only language and our fitful attempts to inject tone or personality into the figures we type. The internet is a dangerous place for personal communication.

Regardless of our culture’s ever-growing reliance on virtual communication, I have a difficult enough time expressing myself in person—at least in a way that comes across as intended. Am I a linguistic lummox? I feel so rarely heard and so often like the inflictor of unintentional pain. If I waited until I could think of a perfect way to say something, I’d never say anything. So, unfortunately, what comes out of my mouth often lacks the tact and kindness I envision.

Fie you, words! You always get in the way of what I’m trying to say.

Since I thus far have proved myself unable to bring my on-the-spot speech to the level I desire, I am choosing to cultivate other methods of communication. Although I have greatly improved my ability to say what I mean, it is nowhere near where I would like it. I’ve concluded that verbal communication is something that will only improve with time, growth, and experience. By studying language for years, I’ve topped out on any kind of unnatural progress that could be made.

So if you see me dancing about, gesticulating wildly, touching more people, painting more pictures, making more collages, or using more grunts and squeals than words, you’ll know why. A picture’s worth a thousand words? Well, I’ve heard sighs that say twice as many.