One of the great benefits to living in this country is that we have freedom of speech. We can say pretty much anything we want to say. People in some other countries are not so fortunate.
While you may not like to admit it, there are some restrictions. Some of these are legal, some are cultural and/or value driven.
For example, you cannot go into a crowded space and yell “fire” or something else that would cause a stampede and result in harm to innocent people. You cannot joke about hijacking or bombing in an airport. You cannot threaten someone. Causing, or threatening to cause harm, riots or other civil disruptions can land you in deep legal trouble. Most of the time you recognize this and pay attention to your language.
Culture and values also limit your speech at times. For example, many people still find vulgarity offensive and crass; using it offends the audience and demeans the speaker.
This is where the “R” word comes in: responsibility. You are free to choose your words, and you are also responsible for the impact those words have. Your words have power and it is your responsibility to understand the potential consequences of your speech.
When choosing your words, it isn’t simply about you. It is about the message you want your audience to hear and how best to achieve that. The message is the words, the intent and the interpretations. Your audience consists of those directly addressed and any others who hear your message – by-standers, those who hear it second/third/fourth (or more) hand, and those who suffer any consequences, intended or not. In this day and age, your speech is not private.
Given this, it is your responsibility to be conscious of the impact your speech might have. Some questions you might ask yourself include:
- How do you want your audience to interpret your words?
- What alternative interpretations might derail your message?
- How do you want your audience to react to and feel about your message?
- What do you want your audience to think of you for having spoken your message?
- Would you want to see your words in the news headlines?
Answering these questions will help you pick the right words. It doesn’t have to take a long time – you typically already know the answers as you formulate your words. The key is to be conscious.