Bad Language

CASS COUNTY COURTROOM - LIBRARY OF CONGRESS

Earlier this year, my coach David observed that I tend to default to describing things as “good” or “bad” rather than using more accurate – and less judgmental – words. He scolded me about it, in the way that only someone whose job is to not let you get away with your bullshit can. “Why use value judgements when describing your feelings about something? I try to stay away from those. They’re lazy and unhelpful.”

He was right (of course he was right). Describing something as good or bad is often simpler than thinking about, or explaining, our actual feelings. “Good” and “bad” are such accepted descriptors, despite the fact that they are rarely the most appropriate choice, that we barely notice using them. “Good” and “bad” conceal more complex, honest adjectives, and their overuse neutralizes their actual meaning. Think about all the times you have used the word “good” because it seemed like the politest, most expedient way of expressing, “everything is fine; no further inquiry necessary.” In this way, “good” is like a shield, deflecting more questions. “Bad” can be similarly discouraging of real examination. Is something or someone actually bad, or would it be more accurate to say it was disappointing, upsetting, or tiresome?

David’s larger point about using words like “good” and “bad” to describe things is that they are value judgements, and value judgments aren’t helpful when thinking about your own feelings or behavior (or someone else’s). Value judgments don’t encourage gentleness and patience with ourselves and with others. I had been using “good” and “bad” so generically that at first I balked at this point. But the more I thought about it, the more I agreed. Language matters, and “good” and “bad” subtly signal expectations and judgments that we may not even recognize. Barry Evans, author of The Myth of the Experienced Meditator, wrote about this in relation to meditation:

Meditation is a haven away from the ubiquitous world of self-improvement. It’s not just that there’s no such thing as ‘bad’ meditation, but there’s no such thing as ‘good’ meditation either. It is what it is.

Without realizing it, I’d been slotting many of my opinions and emotions into the two giant buckets of “good” and “bad.” Since having this tendency pointed out, I’ve tried to be more precise and descriptive when I speak and write. Not just with “good” and “bad,” either, but with any that word that feels like a generic placeholder for a more expressive, more accurate, and more meaningful one. By shifting away from using words that are value judgments, the nuance and the complexity of a feeling can come out. Something can be both annoying and worthwhile, frustrating and fulfilling, or exciting and unsettling. It’s difficult not to default to the words I’m so used to; it requires actual concentration on my part. I am still only successful some of the time. But I’ve noticed that it helps me think about my feelings in a less judgmental way, and to be gentler on myself and with others.

Image: Cass County Courthouse (1937; Library of Congress)

8 Comments

  1. Hana Marritz

    This is such a lovely and thoughtful post. our language has been murdered lately in being, as you point out, imprecise , leaving us to less connection and less honesty with ourselves and others. so, bravo, for making a very significant observation and calling us all to become more present.

    I have a suggestions for another topic; the use of “like”. instead of saying “I feel” or “I think” people say ‘I like” . this points up to the same issue. instead of expressing something accurately, it is an “in the ballpark” statement that obfuscates real meaning.

    thanks! keep us the great work!

    • leda

      Yes, exactly! I agree about the work “like,” and I am very guilty of using it in lieu of more descriptive, precise words. We can do better than “in the ballpark” when expressing ourselves.

  2. I suppose my generic buckets of “good” and “better” aren’t helpful either. :)

    Everyone in my Tae Kwon Do dojang says they have a good side and a bad side. I like to say a good side and a better side just to shake it up a bit. I dont’ know how nuanced I could get with my language in class, but I think it would actually be helpful when trying to understand the mechanics.

    I think it is important to clearly articulate what is going on around us. Sometimes I wish I had one of those “feeling charts,” so I could more accurately describe what is going on.

    (Random thoughts from Rebecca – sorry).

    Great Post.

    • leda

      Haha, yeah, the ideas is to stay away from value judgments entirely… but it’s so hard! I catch myself slipping up all the time. I like your variation of “good” and “better” :)

  3. Sylvia

    My father-in-law was an Episcopal priest who spent much of his time listening to parishioners’ big and small problems and offering what he hoped would be useful counseling. At home, he did not dispense much advice within the family, but when his son Rudy and I became parents, he did suggest very strongly that we never use the words “good” and “bad” to refer to our children or to their behavior. This made me realize how ubiquitous those judgemental words are in casual conversation and how frequently and almost automatically parents use them with their children. I tried hard to eliminate them from my vocabulary, which in turn eliminated judgement from many of my exchanges with my children. This was one of the best pieces of parenting advice I ever received.

    • leda

      What great parenting advice to get so early on. No doubt this helped removed a lot of (unintentional) judgement and helped keep your relationships with your kids strong and enduring.

  4. Meredith Watts

    Unfortunately, it took me a very long time to learn that assigning the “good” and “bad” labels was destructive and limiting. My parents were both “black and white” thinkers, which I think many people of their generation were (the World War II generation). As a result I became a judgmental person, especially if I thought something was “not fair.” Fairness was a paramount virtue in my father’s opinion. It was hard to realize that many things in life are not fair, and being judgmental does not change that. One of the ideas about parenting that was making the rounds when my millenial kids were being raised was that it was never a good idea to call a child “bad.” We learned to focus on identifying what we did not want to tolerate in their behavior, and respond to that, rather than branding them. That helped me be less judgmental of myself, although I think being self-critical and feeling “bad” about ourselves may be something that some of us are just born with and have to struggle with all our lives.

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