Words by Joshua Baerwald
It’s not uncommon to hear people complain about the empty words and phrases we use while interacting with one another on a day to day basis. One will hear and say the phrase “I’m sorry,” with no emotional intent behind it, and say “Thank you,” without conscious awareness of the expression. The question “How are you,” has lost all meaning. It is not an inquiry into the well-being of a person, but rather a mere greeting in passing. Due to our cultural upbringing, Many of the simple phrases that display our ability to be humane, and relate to one another, have lost their meaning.
A boy runs on the playground, playing tag with some of his classmates. Caught up in the adolescence and emotion, he pushes over one of his peers. A teacher witnesses this and goes over to the two kids, who are both filled with frustration at this point. To defuse the increasingly tense situation, the teacher tells the young boy to say sorry to his fallen friend, implying that the verbalization of the phrase will absolve all pain and tension in the relationship.
The boy then goes to lunch with his classmates, and after a long and dreaded wait in line, he grabs his tray. After his tray is filled, he is about to leave the line, but before he can, his teacher tells him to say thank you to the people who served him lunch. As with most of the things he receives, the boy is conditioned to use this reply as a habit, as though it’s a responsibility rather than a sincere gesture. Many of us are familiar with these empty “thank you”’s later on in our life, particularly during the holidays. When we receive that unexpected gift we know we won’t use from a distant relative, the next few moments swell with uncomfortable tension as we try to express gratitude that we don’t really have.
Due to our culture’s tendency to encourage the development of a habit to say phrases which should carry emotional weight, they lose the intent that is supposed to come with them. We learn to separate the emotion of being thankful from the action of saying thank you. A habit is developed where we gloss right over the emotional response – how we feel – and skip straight towards the physical response – a vocal expression of how we should feel. This leads to the uncomfortable tension after receiving that gift we aren’t crazy about. Similarly, when that boy pushed his friend, he was told to say sorry, whether he was or not. He wasn’t asked to see if he understood why he should apologize. He may not have even truly felt sorry, but was forced to verbally express it regardless. Due to this enforcement, we fill opportunities to truly express sorrow or gratitude with words devoid of meaning.
This lack of intent remains pertinent as we get older; if we are taught as kids to say sorry to things that, in reality, we are apathetic towards, how can you expect that to change as we age? When we make a mistake which negatively impacts someone else, we stop considering how to truly repair the relationship, and rely on our default two-word responses. By removing this consideration for another’s feelings after we commit an offense, so to speak, we also remove the consideration we would give prior to our decisions. We don’t consider how our actions might hurt others in the future, because we’ve been raised to think that a mere statement will relieve any pain caused, and conditioned to skip the emotional connection that might be made, or broken, following these actions.
Instead of teaching our children to say sorry, and to say thank you, regardless of how we feel, we should teach them how and why they should feel those things. We need to truly recognize the humanity in these expressions, and understand why it is so important that they exist in the first place. Once we can learn to feel sorry for our actions and be grateful for that which we receive, the expressions will follow, as well as the development of a correlation between the humanity of an expression and the expression itself. We will stop expecting phrases absent of legitimacy to absolve any problems we have caused or might cause, and focus instead on fixing the problems through actions that extend further than a collection of phonemes.