What child hasn’t been scolded for calling someone names? They are admonished: That’s not nice. . . . We don’t call others names. . . . Tell him you’re sorry for calling him names. We use these and other familiar phrases to try to teach our children how to behave properly and respectfully in a civil society. Calling others names is character attack. To say, “You are an idiot,” classifies the other, is not specific about your objections/concerns, and invites defensiveness. In short, it is bad communication practice.
Most of us are careful not to do this in the workplace or with friends and acquaintances. We behave with a level of respect and courtesy that is intuitively obvious. We preserve the relationship by finding a respectful way to address problems and concerns (most of the time!).
But at home it is often a different story. Many of us assume we can “let down” at home, be “ourselves” with loved ones, with the result that we say whatever comes to mind. We justify it with a telling it like it is mentality or the moral obligation to be honest. Unfortunately, for many, familiarity lowers their standards—it in fact, does breed contempt.
In many cases, because we know the other so well, we assume we know their intentions. Logically, if we know their intentions and believe their intentions are bad, then we are justified in calling them the names they “deserve.”
From a communication standpoint it is always good practice to make sure you have verified the intentions and motivations of the other. “I know her well enough to know what she means,” isn’t good enough. You better ask her—with sincerity. “What you said really offended and hurt me. Was that your intention?” or “I don’t know where you’re coming from.” These statements do not attack the character of the other person, but offer feedback on the emotional impact and ask for clarification.
“Oh, we are more informal. We don’t talk that way,” you say. Well that’s likely true, but there are many ways to ask for clarification. The Basic and Necessary Communication Skills section of my book, Do You Know What I Mean? offers several different ways to approach this.
As I write this I confess to having a scolding tone. Truth to tell, I am upset about this issue. I hear too many parents and kids and couples calling each other names without being aware of it. I see how desensitized they become and the gradual erosion of good will in family relationships because of it.
I hear on television, radio, and movies the smart-mouth one liners with a laugh track encouraging poor communication—words that are not about achieving understanding but are meant to get the upper hand. Good communication is not about winning, it’s about being effective in achieving understanding, which creates trust and closeness.