Riyal Talk: Sticks and stones may break my bones, but words can also hurt me

“How’d they get into that school?! They’re not even that smart.”

Admit it. Some variation of those 11 words have crossed your mind and mine at some point in our lives. Guilty as charged.

Though I’m sure the phenomenon occurs in other schools, I can’t help but notice that these denunciations are a little too common on the Upper School campus, primarily during the (surprise surprise) stream of college results released during March and April. In just the past three days, for example, I have witnessed countless instances of grumbling and whining about certain students’ college acceptances.

I’m not trying to say that I’m some kind of angelic human being who has never allowed such harsh words to enter her own thoughts, but in this scenario I do hold myself to a phrase that may elicit eye rolls or cause you to remember your 1st grade teacher: if you don’t have anything nice to say, don’t say it at all.

As disconcerting as it is, most of us are inherently judgemental to a degree, constantly looking to compare our achievements with those of our peers to gauge where we stand on some sort of preconceived, competitive scale. In my opinion, these disparagements are often an impulsive reaction to the emotional shock of possibly having to re-evaluate our definition of success.

I do not think that people truly realize the magnitude of what they are saying. The thought of the subjects of these conversations overhearing such comments makes me cringe, and I’m sure it makes you cringe as well. In just one breath, we have robbed someone’s happiness about the achievement they have strived so long to attain. In just 11 words, we have stung them with the realization that we do not think that they are capable of such distinction. In just a few seconds, we have planted a seed of doubt in their mind about their own self-worth, capable of growing into a permanent fear of being eternally inadequate.

I do not know who first coined the phrase, “Sticks and stones may break my bones but words will never hurt me”, but I’m almost positive that he or she never had the heartbreaking experience of hearing another person attack their acceptance into a prestigious university.

Words, though we may not want to admit it, do hurt, often times in more permanent and profound ways than physical actions do. Words pierce, wound, torment, discourage, and sadden. That being said, these are not the only functions of words. Words also have the power to inspire, heal, comfort, lift, and delight. I do not think that J.K. Rowling could have phrased it any better when she said in Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows: “Words are, in my not-so-humble opinion, our most inexhaustible source of magic. Capable of both inflicting injury and remedying it.”

Though we may not have control over many aspects of our lives, we do have control over our words. Once uttered, they imprint themselves on the minds of others, sometimes indelibly. These permanent marks are rarely removed by the erasers of our apologies or repeals. It’s about time that we started to use these powers more wisely, allowing ourselves to fully process the future emotional consequences of our words before permitting them to exit our lips. We need to train ourselves to encourage and empathize with others regardless of our competitive instinct or need to make ourselves feel more confident.

My solution? Uttering a different set of 11 words: “Hey, congrats about getting into that school! You really deserve it.”  If you cannot muster the compassion to do so, don’t say anything at all.