Words Matter: Using the Right Vocabulary

Words Matter: Using the Right VocabularyI fully admit that I am a vocabulary geek. At my family’s dinner table when I was growing up, I learned that words matter. Praise was earned for using “SAT vocabulary” (the kind of big words found on the SAT test). I did the same thing with my stepchildren and now with my nieces and nephew. I love the nuance of words, the power of a well-chosen term, the glory in finding just the right way to express an idea or feeling.

But words can be tricky because of how they are misused or overused. Too often we use terms we assume everyone knows the meaning of or we choose simplified terms to discuss rather complex issues (Carnegie Mellon University did an interesting comparison of presidents’ and presidential candidates’ speeches over time and found that most of them speak at a 6-8th grade reading level.). Even more often, I think, we get swept up into the buzzword of the day and use it over and over to the point of meaninglessness.

Bullying is a word that is often used incorrectly today. People say bullying when they really mean conflict.

Operation Respect Vocabulary

So here’s a bit of a vocabulary list related to our work at Operation Respect and how we define those words:

  • Conflict: a disagreement or difference of opinion by equals which occurs naturally

Conflict happens. It just does. And it likely always will. Whether it’s siblings sharing a room and arguing over closet space, a couple trying to decide where to spend their vacation, or kindergarten students desperately wanting to be first in line, conflict happens whenever people of equal power care deeply and disagree on how to solve an issue.

  • Bullying: includes several factors , including an imbalance of Power, Aggressiveness (physically, emotionally, socially), Intentionality, and Numerous instances (acronym PAIN).

Bullying, as we said last week, is different. It reflects a difference in power, an aggressiveness with an intention to hurt, and happens repeatedly.

  • Cyberbullying: bullying that occurs via an online or social media platform, where a single incident has the potential to go viral (i.e., become numerous through exposure)

Cyberbullying is slightly different in that even one “action” – a negative post, an exhortation to leave someone out of a social situation, an intentional public exposure of a private fact or image – becomes numerous by virtue of its potential to spread quickly.

  • Bystander: a person who witnesses something happening without taking action
  • Upstander:  a person who takes action or stands up for someone when he or she witnesses someone being bullied or being treated unkindly

Our work is really two fold: We seek to prevent bullying and other kinds of violent behavior by establishing a classroom, school, and community culture free from the kinds of bias that can lead to bullying, and we also teach adults and young people how to respond when bullying does occur by helping them develop the skills of upstanders rather than bystanders.

Here’s to a time when none of these vocabulary words are needed!

Molly McCloskey is the President and CEO of Operation Respect.

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