The limited power of words

I love it when two divergent streams of thought crash together in my head to create a new realization. This usually only happens when I’m taking in sufficient forms of new thoughts. Sadly, my intellectual diet is more than a touch anemic these days. I do miss college for a rich diet of new perspectives. Anyway, enough lamenting.

When I expressed interest in learning more about sales strategies as part of my “I’m bored at work, what new thing can I learn” phase that predated my job change, my husband bought me some books. One of them is Influencer: The Power to Change Anything. You really never know what you’re getting when you buy these books — all the copy about them is written by the same guy with the same vocabulary. Sometimes it’s a good blog post, in the form of a hardcover. (That was two books back.) Sometimes, it’s the completely obvious stated and restated. Sometimes it’s more narrative (I did enjoy “How To Make Friends and Influence People”). Sometimes the entire books seems to be about how IMPORTANT and LIFE CHANGING the lessons of the book are. Sadly, those lessons can usually be summed up in about 3 bullet points like:

  • Stop being a jerk to people, or they’ll get back at you
  • Eat fewer calories, exercise more and you will lose weight
  • Hamsters are funny

    Anyway, the Influencer book falls into the slightly academic and actually somewhat useful category, with slight side trips into the obnoxiously-telling-you-how-important-it-is genre. One of the points it made was that we, as people, tend to over-rely on telling people things with words and not do enough with showing and demonstrating things. It talked about the influence of example, instead of lecture. I read, and pondered how to apply this to the difficult challenge of getting a 4 year old to actually EAT his DINNER already.

    The next day, our pastor’s sermon was on Jeremiah. Jeremiah was a terribly popular prophet who went around telling the Isrealites that they were dooooooomed and that they had to shape up or Babylon would lay the smackdown on. Shockingly, they didn’t listen. Rod even mentioned that Jeremiah used some of the techniques discussed in the Influencer, namely visual metaphors and field trips. (Er, Rod didn’t make the Influencer connection. That was me.)

    Rod’s sermon on Jeremiah

    Anyway, that got me wondering. Is there a cultural bias in Western, Christian culture towards believing words are critically important in part because of this early tradition of prophecy? In the Gospel of John, Jesus is described as The Word, Logos (I’m going to get in trouble here — dear Greek scholars, be kind!). Throughout the Bible, words and speech are given special privilege and power, as they so explicitly are for Jeremiah. But that’s hardly the only place, “Thy word have I hid in my heart….”

    I think it would be fair to argue that the Bible is the most influential cultural element in Western Culture. (I’m sure you could argue con, but it has to be up there). Does the Bible reflect a baseline human passion for words and speaking? Or instead, did a particular interest in language reflected in the Bible nudge Western culture towards an extra emphasis on the value of words and language — possible sometimes to the detriment of example and action? Are there other cultures where language is less influential or important, where actions or even visual arts are more important? Does Western society over-emphasize language at the cost of other effective communication?

    My pondering continued into the offering. I have heard stories about times when powerful and eloquent speech moved hostile crowds to change their minds, their actions and their lives — moments when one person standing in front of the masses spoke and the world changed because of it.

    I have never experienced that moment. My mind is not easily changed by rhetoric or blog posts. I consider the facts available and weigh them with my experiences and values. I think about things. I’m rarely caught up in the enthusiasm of a crowd. I’m not sure I listen well enough, and with a sufficiently open mind, to be changed by a modern prophet, should one arise.

    We greatly weigh words, but do we listen anymore? Does the great cacophony of the modern age diminish the influence of any one set of words? What does it mean if we become immune to something we consider so critical to our understanding of the world?

    Many questions, no answers. What do you think?

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    Brenda currently lives in Stoneham MA, but grew up in Mineral WA. She is surrounded by men, with two sons, one husband and two boy cats. She plays trumpet at church, cans farmshare produce and works in software.

    2 thoughts on “The limited power of words”

    1. I think we live in a word weary world, and yet we can’t seem to get enough. The blog phenomenon is evidence of that.

      The challenge, as it has been since the beginning, is to filter out the babble and hear the wisdom.

      And, it’s probably best to never get caught up in the enthusiasm of a crowd. They never did anything worthwhile and usually make trouble.


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