Remember the childhood phrase “sticks and stones can break my bones, but words will never hurt me”? It was supposed to be our defense against bullies, our response when people said mean things to us. Our parents thought that would protect us. Unfortunately, they were wrong.
Words do hurt us. What we say matters because our words express our emotions, what we are thinking and feeling. Those emotions are read by others, and influence how others respond to us, learn from us, reflect us. This is part of the empathy process. We typically think of empathy as a caring feeling, but that is compassion. Empathy is neutral, it is how we interpret and experience others as a process. Words that are demeaning and insulting are felt by others as demeaning and insulting. That is the consequence of our ability to emotionally read others.
We live by reading others
We survive through our ability to read others. If someone in my office starts screaming and yelling, even if I don’t understand his words, I feel the anguish or alarm and pay attention. My body reacts immediately and my head processes what it means. If it is a scream of pain, I might call 911 for medical help. If it is a scream of fear I might look around and see smoke coming out of a room and evacuate immediately. Reading these emotions matter, they can save lives. While hearing, our bodies react.
So too our bodies react when someone calls us an ugly name, because we feel the ugliness. Cognitive neuroscience shows us that we mirror the emotions of others,1 regardless of whether these emotions are positive or negative. The reason bullying is so powerful is because the words used are said in ways that are mean, belittling, and diminishing. Furthermore, research shows that bullies typically lack the full array of empathy.2 What bullies are good at is reading other people, but not sharing their emotions or understanding how others feel.3 Their ability to read other people fuels their use of purposeful mean words, enjoying the effect they cause, the effect of diminishing others. However, for those who have empathy and hear their words, those feelings of diminishment and meanness are felt and taken in.
Empathy can help us choose our words carefully
I have been studying empathy in its various forms for years. The more I study interpersonal and social empathy, the more I am careful about what I say because I know that my words send a message that is felt, that is repeated, and that shapes how people react. We have neuroscience evidence that backs us up on this, so we need to take it very seriously. If we refer to people from a certain country or of a certain race in ugly words, that ugly image creates a mental picture that is felt by all of us. We call that affective mentalizing.4 It is part of the process that leads to our ability to read others. We learn it, and we reflect it.
We use words to convey our emotions. Of course when we are caught saying something that might be ugly, we often say we didn’t mean it, or we were just kidding. But I find that most of the time that is an after-the-fact cover. We did say words we mean, and those words conveyed a feeling that was ugly or demeaning, and falling back on that sticks and stones theory is a way to claim it was just words and nothing else. But if you feel it, pay attention. We are better at picking up people’s intentions and meanings when they speak than we realize. We are built to mirror those emotions. So words do matter, they reflect who we are and they give rise to feelings in others. If you don’t want to be an ugly person, if you don’t want to hurt others, don’t use mean and ugly words.