I’ve noticed an uptick in the personal development world of ‘gurus’ becoming increasingly more comfortable using four-letter words. I guess it’s what the cool kids are doing these days. And I’m not talking about the occasional use of colorful words like hell or damn, but rather the repeated use of, for example, the f-word. In fact, I was surprised, and a bit taken aback to be honest, to hear a particular ‘professional’ not only use decidedly unprofessional language, but use it frequently while addressing a large audience. In explaining his rational for its usefulness, he basically said doing things that are generally considered taboo is personal development 101.
Yeah, about that . . .
I’m not buying it, first of all. Call me old-fashioned, but I still think manners matter. Besides, imagine a world where everything we considered taboo was challenged constantly, as a matter of principle. Over time, our sense of right and wrong would experience a dulling effect. Our moral compass would spin endlessly in every direction and we’d devolve into something resembling tribalism, if not barbarism. So suggesting that it is somehow helpful to regularly challenge the very things that assist in civilizing society, in my view, is unhelpful.
Moreover, not only is it OK to have basic standards of conduct, but societies actually benefit from its practice, or so I’ve read.
But put aside for a moment the moral implications of the “vulgarization of manners” and consider, if you will, the wisdom in bridling our passions. Certainly, lighting fires is beneficial; unless, of course, the earth is scorched and we too are consumed in the flames.
Intuitively we understand this. But in a world increasingly hostile to restraints on behavior, restraining ourselves becomes a crisis of social proportions. Our need to fit in, if not appropriately managed, can blur our vision of true north (yes, even professionals fall prey to this emotional trap). And instead of being led by our value system, we’re led by someone else’s, and usually in the form of the lowest common denominator. In my experience, if the masses are mindlessly marching in one direction, it’s probably best to head in the exact opposite direction.
What we say, it should be noted, says something about us. So I ask: What are we communicating about ourselves to others? It’s an interesting question. And generally frightening to consider. It requires us to look at ourselves honestly, and few people have the courage to learn who they truly are. They’d prefer to keep pretending, as if happiness is in being who others want us to be so that we’re socially accepted rather than being who we ought to be; or, in other words, what our conscience dictates we should be.
We live at a time when there is a kind of awakening to the power of our thoughts in shaping our lives. To some extent, I think the claims are bit hyperbolic. I don’t believe, for example, we can have whatever we want whenever we want it. Nevertheless, it’s true: as we think in our heart, so are we. And if thoughts matter, so too do words. In fact, our words are simply a manifestation, or at the very least a reflection, of our thoughts. And if our thoughts are vulgar and coarse, what then is its effect on us? Are we not also becoming more vulgar and coarse? Of course the answer is obvious. But even if it wasn’t, it’s a thought worth pursuing.
We have to acknowledge the fact that words have meanings. If we could simply attach whatever meaning we wanted to them we’d cripple our ability to communicate, which is the whole point of words in the first place. And if you look up the definition of four-letter words you begin to understand why they’re prevalent among what is generally considered society’s underclass: failing communities and American prisons, to name just a couple. But ultimately, we learn that words are what they are, and they mean what they mean.
Don’t get me wrong. I don’t think people that swear are bad people. I think they are like me and are still trying to figure out exactly where the line truly is. Naturally, no one believes that we should say whatever we want whenever we want to. We all understand on some level that a line exists. We understand that in order for society to function there has to exist a sense of cooperation. And in order for us to cooperate, we have to respect one another. And to respect one another we have to speak respectfully to each other.
By definition, certain words are inherently disrespectful. And to use them communicates a kind of disdain not only for others, but also for ourselves. And not becoming disdainful is a challenge many professionals in almost every industry face. Doctors, for example, require bedside manners, and for good reason. Nurses, after seeing patient after patient, some of whom are faking their symptoms, struggle at times to resist feeling contempt for the sick. Police officers are exposed to some of the worst things society has to offer. After a while, it’s hard not to become desensitized. Psychologists are listening to everyone else’s problems every single day of their working lives. It can be exhausting. And the same is true of personal development professionals. At some point, they can begin believing they’re actually better than others.
These are temptations we all have to resist, particularly as we become more powerful and influential. We don’t, with any moral legitimacy, get to live by a different set of rules. If it’s important to be respected, then it’s important to be respectful. You don’t get to make the rules up as you go. It doesn’t matter how successful or smart we may think we are.
So maybe that’s it. Perhaps I just think there is something inherently good about a person that demonstrates respect for whomever might be in earshot, even if that includes those too prudish to understand just how hip (or useful) using the f-word is. But that’s just me.