Tuesday, December 11, 2007

Say It, Feel It, Change It

Words have always held a special fascination for me, perhaps because English was not my first language. Over the years I have become fairly adept at ferreting out the nuances of English. One thing I have learned I share with you now: words are the most potent weapons at our command. Nothing, no bomb, no poison, no method of torture, is a surer method of destruction then a word aimed well. And yes, the opposite is also true: there is no cure, no medicine as palliative as a kind word taken often. Nothing can be as persuasive, and nothing can change what we believe and who we believe in, quicker then a well placed word. Words can illuminate and words can plunge us into darkness. Words can bring us to raucous laughter and can reduce us to misery.

Sometimes, if you change the word used, you change a person's perception of something as well. A brief example. When they were very young my kids took exception to the idea of eating meatloaf. Now it happens that I make a really good meatloaf, so it wasn't the taste, but they just didn't "like" the word. One night, instead of using a loaf pan, I put the meatloaf mixture into a deep, round pan. One of the kids asked me suspiciously what I was making and was it the awful meatloaf. I answered "No, it's not meatloaf. Tonight we are having a special family meal. We are going to share a big meatball." Instant change--the kids danced around chanting "share a meatball" and everyone finished everything on their plates. Same item, different word.

The same happened with the word "leftovers." Somehow the kids had gotten the idea that leftovers were bad things to have to eat, undesirable things even. I looked them straight in the face and said "Yes, but we aren't having leftovers; we are having cook-aheads." This actually settled the matter quite nicely.

And then there were potato latkes. Offer one of my kids cooked potato latkes and the answer was "No!" So when one of the kids suspiciously looked at the mixture I was preparing and asked if that was "latke gook" I innocently looked at her and said "Of course not--that is pommes frites a la Diane." Amazing how much they enjoyed dinner that night.
Change the word and you change the perception.

There are some words that occur with frequency when people are looking for a spouse. A lot of these words bring out instantaneous reactions of "Yuck," "No way," "Poor soul," and dozens of other negative reactions. There is nothing at all wrong with the things these words stand for, but the words used have cemented themselves into our culture and into our minds as being something objectionable, something disgusting, something undesirable.

I'm talking about words like "older single," "unmarried," "shadchan," "picky," "choosy," "settle," "spinster"--you get the picture. Even a word like "special" is looked at with suspicion. Add in "too modern," "too short," "too chubby," and "too" just about everything else. Substitute "mature" and "experienced" for "older" and you look at things differently.

People who present possible shidduchim to others need to change their way of speaking. It may not change the reality of the match being presented but it will change the way we perceive that match. We need to stop giving advice couched in terms that turn people off before they can think deeply about what is being said. The dictionary and the thesaurus are both full of choices, choices that may be more successful in presenting people in a positive light. An obscure 18th century writer said it all: "Ah death. Sharper then a rapier's point the tongue with which he wounds me."

Just a note: Changing "meat loaf" to "meat ball" certainly changed perceptions outside of my house as well. The day after I used "meat ball" my daughter looked at the lunch being offered in school, spaghetti and meatballs, and commented to her teacher: "My family shared a meatball for dinner last night." That afternoon the menahel called me up. He started his conversation: "Mrs._______, if tuition is causing your family a problem, we can make it lower for you." All because we shared a meatball.


Bad4shidduchim(in exile) said...

ROFL from that meatball story. :-D

Which obscure 18th century writer?

ProfK said...


Weirdly enough the history book from which I took the quote itself said "an obscure 18th Century writer" without identifying the writer. I've never been able to track down the author, but I do like the quote.

Anonymous said...

My husband called from work and as usual asked what was for dinner tonight. I had just read your post and so I told him cook aheads. He said that sounded fine whatever it was. Thank you!

Anonymous said...

Funny exmples. But sometimes you have to be careful what words you substitute. A friend of mine liked to say that she was "temporarily unpossessed" We all thought she was better off just being single. Her way made her sound more then a little mentally unbalanced.

Anonymous said...

In my house your cook aheads are called mothers helpers. The kids kind of have a hard time giving me a hard time about something that helps me. It's easier just to eat whatever it is.

Anonymous said...

Do you really think that changing behavior is as simple as just changing the words we use? I mean why would what is just a word make such a difference?