WHAT’S IN A WORD?

Whenever I covered Pavlovian Conditioning (you know, bell rings and dog salivates) in a college course, I spent a lot of time trying to show that the process was much more than a salivating dog; this conditioning is a fundamental learning process by which stimuli in our lives become meaningful for us.

I always asked students for personally meaningful stimuli, and I remember one class when a student said, “I was in a Little League game and there was this one guy in the stands who was a real idiot. He must have been the father of the opposing pitcher, who by the way was striking out all of us. Starting with our leadoff hitter the parent yelled out stuff like, ‘Give it up, kid. You’ll never touch him.’ ‘Go home, kid. You’re gone anyway.’ I batted fifth and when I came up in the second inning every teammate before me had gone down swinging. I walked to the plate and heard the bozo yell, ‘You’re history, boy. You’re going down big time, boy.’ That word, ‘Boy,’ it cut me like a knife. I felt so ashamed, dirty. Every batter before me was ‘kid,’ but I was ‘boy.’ I struck out on three pitches and started crying walking back to the dugout, not because I struck out, but because of the racial slur.”

Another student raised his hand and started talking, “If I had been you I….” I immediately interrupted and literally yelled out (a couple of nappers in the back row were jolted awake!), “What are you saying? Stop it!” I yelled. “If you had been James? How can you possibly know what he was feeling? You wouldn’t have his memories, his experiences. And most of all, how can you, a White kid, possibly put yourself in James’ place? How can you know what it’s like to be Black and hear the word ‘boy’?”

Silence. I returned to a normal tone and said, “OK, I apologize for yelling, but I wanted to make a point. Let’s talk about what just happened here. Let’s talk about communication, calm communication. Can we ever really know how others see a situation? Should we try and see things from their point of view if we are to have meaningful conversation? Let’s talk about how stimuli that are meaningful to you are very personal, and when we forget that, productive discussion falls apart. Let’s also talk about how my emotional tirade threw everything off balance and made civil discussion hard. In fact, my outburst led to silence. Can we ever really reach an understanding if we throw a lot of emotionality into the mix?”

And off we would go, never fully resolving things, but, to one degree or another, depending on the “class personality,” achieving some insight into the dynamics of what makes good conversation and why communication often breaks down.

If you want to cope effectively in social situations, during conversation you must be sensitive to the perceptions of your listener. A word may be harmless to you, but may be filled with surplus meaning to someone else. “Monkey,” for instance. To African Americans it can connote racism, demeaning them as being like a monkey. A White says to a Black, “Stop monkeying around.” To the speaker it means, “Stop misbehaving and focus”; to the listener the phrase is an insensitive racial insult.

If you were the White speaker would you be tempted to say, “Oh, for heaven’s sake. It’s a common expression. I can’t believe you’re offended. I sure wouldn’t be.”

Note several features of this reply: You are saying to your listener, “Your hurt feelings are not valid, they are silly.” As far as your listener is concerned, however, you are being arrogant and condescending by implying your way of looking at things is the only reasonable way; and, you are totally ignoring the fact that your listener likely has a set of life experiences that have produced the negative attitude toward the offensive word. Any way you look at it, you are showing that you have lousy interpersonal skills, and that deficiency will hamper effective coping, which requires communication, cooperation, compromise, and consensus when interacting with others.

The coping lesson here is that you must try and understand how others see things, and accept that it might be quite different than your view. You must be sensitive to others’ perceptions, not belittle them. That’s called empathy. You must move from egotism to altruism, from condescension to respect, from confrontation to compromise. You should defend your opinion, of course, but always remember that your view is not the only one, or always the correct one.

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