America is SUPER-lative! The Importance of Mindful Speech

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Photo by Elias Castillo

What’s up with our overuse of superlatives? In mainstream America, we see no problem labeling fairly mundane things the greatest, best, or worst, fabulous, terrible, or awful. I myself am a culprit and have been known to announce, “This sandwich is amazing!” or “I have a horrible headache.” There is some danger inherent in making this an ingrained habit, because with overuse, it supports an internal and social environment that is antithetical to many of our highest values.

The current political administration often reminds me of a brief experience I had working in the corporate world in which “average”, “normal” and “typical” seemed to have little value and people proclaimed with absolute sobriety and certainty that their something-or-rather was the (insert adjective)-est on the planet. It was the first time I’d ever heard something described as such and I thought it was pretty audacious. Now, nothing much garners a second look unless its presented as earth-shattering in some way.

Part of this has to do with the fact that we live in a country that strongly values competition. On Wikipedia, the US has the longest list of world’s largest roadside attractions – what isn’t absolutely fascinating about the world’s biggest ball of twine?

…Americans tend to be very competitive. We like having the best, biggest, fastest, most (adj.) whatever. Outdoing the last guy, or team or organization is really a thing with us. – Marcel English

Another reason is that we are so inundated by information and entities vying for our attention that everything has to be newer, bigger, better, faster or stronger just to be heard above the noise.

So, what’s the big deal anyway? One problem is that being beaten over the head with exaggerated claims tends to desensitize us over time. James Gingell, in his article Why Superlatives Are the Absolute Worst, calls it “the blunt trauma of a superlative”. Human beings are built to habituate, so when we begin at maximum volume, there isn’t much wiggle room left. Our senses become dull – we get numb to everyday experience.

Another concern is that words are a form of action. When we let words just come pouring out of us in an impulsive sort of way, we are usually unaware of the intentions behind them. Intentions drive our behavior and our actions have real life consequences, even if its just a ripple effect. How can we embody our highest values if we aren’t aware of the intentions behind our actions, even when they come in the form of words?

Wise speech is a mindfulness practice. When you have an urge to speak, you might consider pausing to reflect first. Ask yourself, “Are the intentions behind my words to divide or to connect? Am I entertaining myself? Am I assuaging my own interpersonal discomfort? Am I trying to declare my own relevance or importance in some way?” A simpler set of questions that has been posited when considering ones words is:

  1. Is it true?
  2. Is it kind?
  3. Is it necessary or helpful?

Those of us who practice mindfulness start to awaken to the habits of mind that cause suffering in ourselves and others. We gain an understanding of how these patterns can become further entrenched through the repetition of unhelpful thoughts and actions. As we begin to see through these unskillful habits, we find ourselves in a position to make a choice. Will we reinforce our problematic thoughts and urges or will we experiment with new ways of being? Practicing wise speech is one way to disrupt harmful patterns and align our actions with our best intentions.

Sometimes we speak clumsily and create internal knots in others. Then we say, ‘I was just telling the truth.’ It may be the truth, but if our way of speaking causes unnecessary suffering, it is not Right Speech… Words that damage or destroy are not Right Speech. – Thich Nhat Hanh

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