Hearing harsh words

Since refraining from harsh speech is one of my own primary target areas of work, I want to think more broadly about it. First, for many years I was unaware that my speech was sometimes grating to others. Part of this is just being from New York, where gentle speech is more rare than in some other places. Also, my family of origin were not a group of gentle conversationalists (not by a long shot). And then there’s my own personality, which was recognized as bossy by my first grade teacher – and she was just observing a truth.

These are a few ways in which harsh speech came naturally to me. Even now, I’ll occasionally get a double-take from an in-law when I speak a little too directly, and I’ve been consciously monitoring it for years. So, from my own experience, the first step in abandoning harsh speech is recognizing when you’re doing it!

Harsh speech is easier to recognize when you’re hearing it from someone else. A month or three back, I was in a shopping mall parking lot, getting into my car. There was a small family getting into a car very near me. I heard the (apparent) father shouting at a child of two or three, “It’s been a good day, don’t fuck it up!” It was like a punch in the gut. A toddler doesn’t know what that means, but surely understands the threat in the tone of voice. I offer this as an example of how I don’t want to be.

Once we’ve pegged our own habits and routines with harsh speech, we can start to work on them. It helps to be specific. For example, I noticed that in a particular group of friends, the rougher side of me seemed to come out. And like most people, when angry (more about that later), the words that come out of me tend to be ill considered and unhelpful. The last frontier is while driving a car – what is it about being behind the wheel that seems to work against our better instincts?

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