I’m sitting in a chilly plexiglass booth, running a monster of a scoreboard for a series of youth ice hockey games. I’m working seven am til two pm—seven games. I’m filling in for my ex-husband while he is on a cruise with his girlfriend. This all fills me with great joy, and I say that without a hint of sarcasm. I get to learn a new technology and skill, it dissolves the remaining guilt I had over abruptly leaving my husband seven years ago into a tiny pinprick, and it gives me yet another shared vocabulary with my kids, all of whom regularly take shifts of scoreboarding for pocket change. I get hours of writing time—how I like to write!-in-between the stop/starts of the time clock. And as if all that isn’t enough, it gives me a chance to observe something that’s a source of endless fascination to me—how social systems and communication work hand in hand.
I watch all ages of hockey teams compete—from 6-year-old Mites to 13-year-old Peewees. And it quickly becomes clear that the best hockey players on each team are not necessarily the fastest skaters or the strongest shots, but the ones who can take very specific words and translate them into actions that can give results. Even at the smallest ages, there are kids who hear “pass”, “shoot”, “stick on the ice”, “skate”, “play the body” and then do just that. On the other hand, there are kids who skate right over the blue line when told “watch the offsides!”—skating themselves into offsides oblivion. Or the kids who just can’t get the shot off quick enough when told to “shoot!”—their brain can’t process the word quickly enough. Or the ones who couldn’t quite understand where to skate to set up a shot. Those kids just weren’t going to be the ones to lead their team to victory.
One of the best things about team sports (and one of the ongoing reasons kids are encouraged to join them) is that the vocabulary is clear. You learn to hear words, process them, and turn those words into action. Eventually, through repetitive practice where you consciously strive to become better, those actions become instinct. And whether it’s learning “offsides” or “belay” or “foul” or “cross-check” or “holding” you learn to accept what a word means without questioning, and you act as clearly and consistently as the word itself.
Thus, the concepts of right and wrong in a competitive sports games, are clear because the actions associated with the vocabulary is clear. It’s easy to be ethical inside of a sports game. You learn the rules, you obey them.
In real life, it’s not so easy. I, for one, find myself constantly asking for clarification “But what do you mean by that?” “Explain, please.” “Give me an example.” And ultimately, when I’ve talked to a person enough, their own particular style of communication is understood instinctually. Even folks I fight tooth and nail with to start—I think of some of the commenters on this site, who at first glance seem to be miles apart from where I stand—can come to agreement as long as we keep trying to work out what the words actually mean.
There’s something great about learning another person’s unique vocabulary. That’s what intimacy is, at least one form of it, you learn how the other person uses of language, you develop a context for their words more than the words itself. There may be an actual shared vocabulary that includes things others just wouldn’t understand. There’s a rhythm and a cadence that feels unique to the two of you. There’s almost nothing I like better than to have a conversation with someone that I couldn’t possibly have with someone else.
And we learn to trust that what they say is the truth as their worldview makes sense to them. We learn how to demarcate our own lines with the person. The lines of trust become as clear as the white chalked 30-yard line on a football field.
“Being on the same team”, the metaphor, means, quite literally, understanding the other person’s words and not questioning their intentions.
Things that are scary are often made more scary because we don’t have the right vocabulary. Technology. Cancer. Investing. Physics. Sex. Blogger Penelope Trunk writes about helping her step-mom through chemotherapy where “the vocabulary is new, and everything feels like a biology test you need to study harder for.” But Penelope also understood that the ongoing quality of life for her family member depended, in part, on being able understand the words being thrown at her well enough so she could ask good questions of the doctors – asking what is happening, how things are going, and what is likely to come next.
In other cases, conversations are scary because we know the meaning of words but we don’t know how to best use them. It’s difficult to talk about race if we don’t know whether we can say the word “ni**er.” (“No” is the correct answer.) The word “rape” itself can be triggering, despite the ongoing attempts to define it so clearly that there is no doubt that only an enthusiastic yes will do. Slut-shaming works because we, as a society, have imbued the word “slut” with meaning designed to cause shame. From the way it is said, “You slut!” to the actions of trying to prove promiscuous behavior in rape cases. Gender-based name-calling abounds. Men have their own words designed to evoke shame: “pervert”, “dirty old man”, “villain”, “philanderer”, “creep”. While there are exceptions, of course, I have rarely heard those words used when referring to women.
In these cases, words are not used to create intimacy, but rather, to intentionally marginalize.
Part of what we try to do here on The Good Men Project is to create a place where people talk about hard-to-talk about subjects without using words to marginalize. To talk openly about the things that aren’t usually talked about. To have a male point-of-view without excluding women. To allow the conversations to happen without worrying about conventional roles. We don’t always say things perfectly. But our intentions are good. And those who have learned to trust that one point— that our intentions are good—are the ones that get the most out of these at times difficult conversations.
George Carlin has a hilarious skit where he talks about words. In particular, the seven words you can’t say on television. He starts off, “There are some people that aren’t into all the words. There are some people who wouldn’t have you use all the words. There are 400,000 words in the English language, and there are seven of them you can’t say on television. What a ratio that is! Three hundred and ninety-nine thousand, nine hundred and ninety three….to seven. They must really be bad. They’d have to be outrageous to be separated from a group that large. All of you over here. You. Bad words.”
And yes, we’ve mostly said all seven of those, somewhere along the way, here on The Good Men Project. Does that make us bad? I think not.
And of course, sex – ahhh, sex — has its own set of words that we are taught not to use. My generation was taught that some words really were “bad.” Whether it’s body parts, or sexual acts that have turned into profanity, or sexual acts that are seen as somehow “deviant”, we are taught that these things are not talked about in “polite company.” As if there are two groups of people in the world, those who say such things out loud and those who don’t. Or the words can be used only when you are in the correct role – it’s ok to say body parts if you’re a doctor, swear words if you’re a rapper, a dry remote description of sexual mechanics if you’re a sex ed teacher, the most deviant sexual acts in vivid detail if you’re a porn star. But just have a conversation about such things? Heck no. Most of my life, I’ve waited for the correct time to talk about such things. And waited. And waited. Like Godot, the “correct” time never showed.
When my two oldest kids were 15 and 16, I was driving past a movie theater with them and – in what seemed like a spur-of-the-moment gesture they asked if I wanted to go see a movie called “American Pie” with them. I knew nothing about the movie, but one of my favorite songs growing up had the same name, and surely it was a nice family movie, right? I was by far the only person over age 23 in the theater. I had no language to describe some of the scenes I saw. Walking out of the movie, someone came up and scolded me, “How could you take your kids to see a movie like that?!” I stood my ground. “How else am I going to talk to my kids about sex?” I was actually pleased my kids felt comfortable enough with me to share that experience. It’s taken tons of trial and error to get to a level of intimacy with each of them that they can trust me enough to talk about almost any topic, but most days, I like to think we’re there. Some of the most difficult conversations with my kids have started with a two or three word text. Or a phone call they didn’t want to make, but were glad they did. Or stories to them of my own failings, as a kid, as a parent. As a human. Part of the trick to being a good parent, I believe, is to be accessible to your kids even while teaching them the consequences of their actions. To teach them where the lines in the hockey rink are while also allowing them room to build their own goalposts. To give and take in a conversation like you would with anyone, while still keeping your role clear. To trust in their love for you. To know when to have boundaries and know when to allow freedom. And to have a shared vocabulary that allows the intimacy to grow instead of create rifts in your relationship.
I love words. I love language. I love every form of communication, every new technology, every impact it makes on the way we talk to each other. I love the way language evolves, I love to see a new word pop in to our language and become a part of our culture. I think that every word that has been created should be allowed to be said—unless, like the n-word, it can cause irreparable harm. We should consider words and say them with care, and with respect to who we are saying it to, of course. But if we want shared intimacy with a whole slew of people (and why the heck not?), if we want deeper understanding, if we want communication that is truly shared, insightful, helpful, inspiring—then we shouldn’t be afraid of words. It’s the choice that matters—the intention and the impact.
photo by merfam / flickr
More on “Our Sexual Vocabulary”
Let’s Really (Really) Talk About Sex, Julie Gillis
Riding in PopPop’s Vulva, Joanna Schroeder
Low and Slow: My Sequel to Dad’s Sex Talk, Tomas Moniz
Potty Mouth Versus Poetry, Paul Leroux
Non-monogamy, Jeremy M.