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The Power of Words

Meanness! It is an unfortunate infection that is spreading like wildfire among young people and adults everywhere. It wears many faces and can be expressed in countless ways. Oftentimes, it starts as harmless teasing, but ...

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Meanness! It is an unfortunate infection that is spreading like wildfire among young people and adults everywhere. It wears many faces and can be expressed in countless ways. Oftentimes, it starts as harmless teasing, but then escalates into character assassination, gossip, violence and blatant disrespect.

Unfortunately, most people don't realize how destructive and hurtful being mean can be. Recently, I have seen the destructiveness of meanness in a number of fragile human circumstances.

One's reputation should be among one s most treasured possessions. Too often, people recklessly tarnish a person's reputation with the words they say. The press is notorious for destroying peoples reputations. Someone is accused of a misdeed and before all the facts are known and presented that person is convicted by what is inadequately presented in the press. The way we use the words in our language can be powerfully affirming or destructively lethal.

Gossip is probably the most destructive form of meanness that we have. People of all ages repeat half truths as if they're facts. Unfortunately, people get into conversations and repeat things they have heard third-hand, have no idea if they re factual, but pass them on anyway. Too often, the truth gets distorted when it is passed on, and people are not conscious of what they're hearing or concerned about the accuracy of what they might be telling another. Careless conversation like this oftentimes causes many casualties. Think about it for a moment. How many relationships have been strained, possibly even destroyed, because of careless irresponsible conversation?

When I was growing up my mother would repeatedly remind me and my four brothers and sisters that if you did not have something good to say about another, you should say nothing at all. That statement has stayed with me my entire life, and I use it often, especially when working with young people. We adults should also incorporate it into our moral compass.

When I was a young school administrator, I had a new student transfer into our eighth grade. As a norm, we did not take transfer students in the eighth grade. However, she just moved into the neighborhood. She had been attending eighth grade in a Catholic school in another state. After reviewing her transcript, I decided to make an exception. She was thrilled. She was an athlete, a scholar and a very well-rounded adolescent.

She started school in October. By November, she was complaining of severe stomach cramps. Her parents took her to her primary care physician, who referred her at to a pediatric specialist. Initially, the doctor could not find anything wrong with her. He was concerned that she was losing weight. He decided to hospitalize her for a few days so that he could run a full battery of tests.

On the second day, while she was in the hospital, her mom was visiting. They were talking and her mom asked her about her transition into her new school. Initially, she responded by saying things were great, then all of a sudden, she broke down into tears. She began crying uncontrollably. Her mom finally calmed her down and got her to talk about what was so upsetting.

Seemingly during the second week of school, she was in the girls room in a stall, a group of eighth-grade girls came in and were chatting away. One of the girls started to talk about the new girl being a flirt. She went on to say a wide range of very unflattering things to her friends. She implied that the new girl was also promiscuous. Needless to say, the girl in the stall was devastated. She could not believe that strangers, who did not know her, could be so mean.

After that conversation, her mom called me at school and explained what had taken place. I assured her that I would take care of it. By their description, I knew who the girls were. They were great kids. I called them into the office for a conversation. I shared with them, what I had just learned about their classmate who was in the hospital. They were shocked. They never intended to hurt her or cause her to get sick. What came out in our conversation was that they were jealous. The eighth-grade boys were giving the new girl a lot of attention. We talked at great length about the content of their conversation in the bathroom, especially about accusing her of being promiscuous when they had nothing to base that statement on. I asked them if they would want the boys in their class to say things like that about them, especially when it's not true. Of course, they said no.

Those girls learned a very painful lesson that day. When their classmate returned, they all reached out and apologized to her. They made a point to make her feel welcome.

Recently, a teenage boy came to see me. He recently transferred into one of our local high schools on the North Shore. He talked about how hard the transition was. From his perspective, the school he's attending is very cliquish. Since beginning school, he has tried to make friends, but admits that it is very hard. He thought playing a sport would ease the transition. Initially, it did. Unfortunately, he's an excellent athlete and seemingly made first-team and took someone else's spot. Now he claims, because of that, he is ostracized. He doesn't want to talk about it because he is afraid it will only make things worse.

However, he came to see me not about himself, but rather about the one friend he did make in school who is a year older than he. His friend is an athlete, but also feels like an outsider. He got hurt during the season, and at the same time, lost his girlfriend. He was very burdened by the gossip that spread after the breakup. He started to totally withdraw. He put on a plastic smile for his parents and did what he had to do in school, but basically connected with no one other than the young man, who came to talk to me.

This teenager could not believe the mean things people said about him after his breakup. He felt so overwhelmed and disgusted. He alarmed his buddy, because he started to talk about hurting himself. His friend got scared and didn't know what to do. He urged him to talk to his parents about his feelings and he did. They felt things were serious enough that he should be evaluated and possibly hospitalized. And that's exactly what happened.

His friend came to see me because he felt so helpless and wasn't sure if he did the right thing. I assured him that he was a good friend, and that he did the right thing. He wanted to know what to do if this happens again in the future. I encouraged him to always keep the conversation going, never to hesitate to tell his friend s parents or other competent adults that he was concerned that his friend might hurt himself. I also said that if he was really frightened for his friend, and there were no adults close by, he should call 911. It is always better in these circumstances to err on the side of caution. I was deeply impressed by the sensitivity and maturity of this 15 year old.

Physical violence is another unfortunate face of meanness. More than ever before, people of all ages seem to want to resolve every kind of conflict with a fight. There are countless stories every week in the paper of senseless bar fights that start over nothing. There are growing physical altercations among athletes at sporting events. High school administrators have acknowledged that fights among students on their campuses are escalating.

It is a sad commentary that we have not empowered our young people to resolve
their conflicts in more respectful, nonviolent ways. Maybe part of that reason is because we as adults do not resolve our conflicts in respectful nonviolent ways! Let's work harder at eradicating meanness.