“I swear,” he said to me, shaking his head, “she is so stupid—.”

I cut him off quickly with, “Stupid? Is she stupid? Didn’t she graduate college?”

“Well, yes,” he stammered, “but, please, how could someone do something like that?”

“Okay,” I answered, “that’s a different question. To figure out what was in her head, we have to ask her, but before we do that, I’m still interested in your use of the word, ‘stupid.’ Is she or isn’t she stupid?”

“No, she isn’t ordinarily stupid,” he concluded with a deep sigh, slinking into the cushions as if wishing he wouldn’t have to get out of them and start dealing with the mess in his life.

When You Say “Is” You Sound Like A Know It All

“You see,” I point out, “the problem is not so much with the word ‘stupid,’ as it is with the word, ‘is.’ For example, if you said, ‘She is acting as if she were stupid, which is really strange since I know she is smart,’ you’d have a whole different meaning, one which really expresses how you feel without sounding like you are a Mr. Know It All and you’re passing judgment on her. I’m not crazy about the word ‘stupid’ in any case, but the word ‘is’ makes it sound like you’ve come down from Heaven with The Answers. You don’t want to do that, I’m sure. It’s disrespectful.”

As Peter looked at me, I could see a little ray of light in his eyes, the dawn of an awareness. “Is that why she has told me so many times, ‘You think you know it all’ and ‘You’re not God, you know’?”

“Could be,” I answered. “Beware of the word ‘is.’ Use it with caution.”

It took me years to realize the potency—and destructiveness—of the word, “is.” Once one person utters any sentence with the word “is” in it, you can’t question it; it sounds so final. For example, “That dress is not attractive.”

Examples of Destructive Statements

“Ahem. To whom, may I ask?” To you, maybe, but not to me. I like it; thank you very much.

“You’ve got the wrong marketing strategy.” Sez who? As you can see, all the close relatives of the verb “to be” fall into the same no-no category. Here we have a “have” that sounds once again like a pronouncement of the ultimate truth. “Do” is another one in the category.

“You’re an introvert.”

“You’ll just keep repeating the same mistakes.”

“I am not successful.”

“I don’t make friends easily.”

“This project will fail.”

Pronouncements. Certainty. A crystal ball. That’s the most obvious common element in all of the above statements. But there is another factor, more subtle, that makes them toxic: It is the suggestion that the speaker somehow “has the goods,” is more aware, is stronger, better, smarter, and more capable than the one who is being labeled. As such, the one who is labeled has no voice with which to rebut.

The Speaker Becomes Smarter; The Listener, Stupider

Somehow, the listener became inferior to the speaker who has an inside scoop. That is what makes the word “is” toxic.

Interestingly enough, this is even a problem when the speaker puts himself down. Self put-downs are echoes of judgments made against him by others, long ago. When a person says he is not successful or does not make friends easily, it may not be the result of an objective look at his life, but rather simply the regurgitating of old put-downs that he has absorbed only too well.

That is probably because the person who said them to him used the word “is” so many times that the idea got drilled into him without his even realizing what was happening. But as that person grew up, he (or she) thought they were his own judgments against himself.

“So,” you may want to ask me, “Are you saying I can’t make the comment ‘It is raining outside’?” Obviously, the word “is” has its place. If everybody would readily agree, just by looking out the window that it, indeed, is raining outside, then the verb “to be” is a helpful statement of shared reality.

It’s only when not everyone would agree on what “is” and—perhaps most significant—in the process of doing that labeling, someone has been put down or lost his or her “voice” that we better be really cautious before using any form of the verb “to be.”

Put Qualifiers Into Your Sentences

Simple things like different views of cleanliness could spark a problem. Sam walks into the house and says, “Well, looks like the place is really spotless now!” Poor Sam thought that was a compliment.

“What??” asks Bella, almost hysterical. “Spotless? Are you kidding? This place is filthy! Don’t you realize there are layers of crumbs in the cabinets? I haven’t even started the cabinets!”

Bella not only feels misunderstood, she feels so alone in her task. And all because of the word “is.” If only Sam had said, “It looks to me like the place is spotless. Am I missing something?”

Alternatively, he could have said, “The place seems spotless, at least what I am looking at right now.” Again, it could have been, “What I see looks good! You’ve been working hard.”

All these tweaks are called qualifiers. They help make room for another opinion. Can you find the ones Sam used in the modified versions? Here they are:

  • It looks to me
  • seems
  • What I see

Others could be:

  • Could be
  • In my opinion
  • My take on it

Qualifiers allow the person who speaks to own the opinion. And as a consequence, they make room for other views.

If the need for qualifiers is important when it comes to everyday cleaning, how much more so in areas of deeper value judgments. “He is a terrible person” would be an example falling into the latter category. “My child is a failure” would be another example.

These should be changed before they exit one’s mouth to something like: “I’m not happy with him” or “My child has been having trouble.” Incidentally, I’m talking about the thoughts that you might have regarding this unknown person or your child. In order to make room for other possibilities in your own mind, it’s really helpful to modify your words as you think them.

You can see that in practicing thinking this way a person changes himself from being a Know It All to a more humble individual. So not only is it helpful to listeners who are given room to have a voice in a discussion, but most importantly, it is good for oneself. And, yes, I’m quite aware that I’ve been using the word “is” myself.

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