Language Needs an Update
By: Pastor Nate Mason
English can be a silly language. My daughter went through kindergarten this past year and has come out a fully functioning reader. I give full credit to her teacher, Mrs. Nelsen, because I was not helpful at all. In my defense, there really are no set rules for how words are made! Have you tried explaining to a six-year-old why “night” spells night? Silent consonants, the 42 ways we pronounce “th,” the 14 ways we pronounce “oo.” It’s all chaos. Chaos, I say!
On top of the spelling and grammar chaos in the English language, we have this issue with idioms. We use idioms like they are going out of style. The English language has more idioms than you can shake a stick at! This can be a problem if you are trying to communicate with non-native English speakers. I had the pleasure of performing a wedding ceremony, and the groom’s family was from Argentina. They spoke English with a lot of technical accuracy but would often get lost when I would use a colloquial saying. I use them without a second thought, and it got hard to tell if I lost them in conversation because of my language use, or just because it can be hard to follow a conversation with me no matter what language you speak. The issue with most idioms is that there is no way to ascertain their meaning from the words that are used. If you didn’t grow up speaking English, how would you know what “raining cats and dogs” means? Trying to explain idioms as written is about as useful as nailing pudding to a tree. It is clear that our language needs an update. To that end, I offer you two proposed updated idioms.
The first updated idiom is “one burnt kernel ruins the bag,” replacing “one bad apple spoils the barrel.” Excuse me a moment while I pull out my soap box.[i] A barrel? How many generations ago were apples sold in barrels? My brain cannot even conceive of the concept of apples in a barrel. If you Google image search “apple barrel” you get a whole slew of images of Apple Barrel Paints, then some apples in a basket. The lack of mental or emotional connection makes this saying meaningless. In fact, you often hear it used to argue the opposite of what it’s meant to say.[ii]
Now burnt popcorn kernels, that’s a smell, taste, and experience we cannot forget. If your microwave popcorn function goes 5 seconds too long you have a blackened charred mess in the middle of your popcorn bag. If it goes 10 seconds too long, then you have a fire on your hands. The smell permeates every nook and cranny of the entire floor of your house and will persist for at least 48 hours. Every time I do this, I think “Well maybe I can just eat around the burnt stuff,” but no. The entire bag tastes like blackened Styrofoam.
The second idiom that needs a rebrand is “random acts of kindness.” My Wesleyan soul hates this one with a passion. Not that John Wesley was known for his hate. Perhaps it would be more Wesleyan to say “I look upon the use of the phrase with stern condemnation.” The spirit behind “random acts of kindness” is the belief that spur of the moment nice gestures will make the world a better place. If we randomly decide to pay for coffee for the person behind us in Starbucks[iii], or pay a kid’s school lunch debt[iv], it will generate enough good karma to transform our society. Poppycock! As a faithful Methodist, I believe that we need to do ALL the good that we can; by all the means that we can (…) Being kind is too important to be left to random chance! Instead, I propose the update “Take every opportunity for kindness.” Every person you interact with is an opportunity to be kind. Not just your family, friends, or coworkers, every person you make eye contact with in the grocery store, every service industry worker, postal employee, or random Joe you see is a chance to be kind. I don’t want to oversell the importance of intentional kindness, but it can make you happier[v], healthier[vi], live longer[vii], and bring about world peace.[viii]
Intentionally building a better world
In case you didn’t feel like reading that handful of links I just threw at you, let me quickly break it down. First of all, kindness is a simple positive social interaction, not to be confused with generosity, which typically costs you money somehow (ie buying coffee or paying school lunch debt). Kindness can be a short compliment, or an earnest question. I don’t buy that a smile can be a kindness. You must interact, use your words, for it to count! When people engage in positive social interactions with the strangers they come across, it fills your body with “good chemicals,” (dopamine, serotonin) and decreases “bad chemicals.” (cortisol). It builds a sense of belonging in your community which creates a positive feedback loop. The more you feel like you belong, the more you engage in positive social interactions, which makes you feel a stronger sense of belonging… This in turn enriches your community. Afterall, you can’t have positive social interactions by yourself!
This effect spreads and builds a sense of trust and social connectedness throughout the entire community. Increased community trust empowers public safety and prosperity. Studies from the World Happiness Report detail how countries that rated high on trust and connectedness had a stronger response to the pandemic and quicker, more robust recovery after the initial crisis. And that makes sense if you think about it. If you take the time to talk to the people in your community, you will care more about their well-being and be more willing to make sacrifices for their safety. If you take the time to talk to the Guatemalan immigrant who works the deli at your local grocery store[ix], you’ll care more about service workers and wear a mask even when it’s inconvenient. On the other end of the crisis, you will be more willing to get back out there because you miss your favorite local service workers.
The World Happiness Report claims that a decline in trust and social connectedness is the biggest contributing factor to a decline in overall global happiness. This correlates very closely to an increase in violent crime, domestic abuse, war, and a whole host of other unpleasant outcomes. It seems like a stretch, but you really can change the world by being kind!
Ok, but I don’t like peopling
I had a weird revelation a few years ago: I am an ambivert. If you’ve ever met me, I am loud and outgoing. I’m a very frenetic presence. I think I like to be around people, so I always assumed that I was an extrovert. However, I have a very limited social battery. I love being around people… for an hour, maybe two max. After that my mind, body, and spirit all shut down. After leading two churches in worship on Sunday, I am known to crawl through the front door, mumble to my wife “I’m done peopling for today,” and hide in my basement cave/office[x] until I can handle social interactions again. “Peopling” is our shorthand for “being the loving, gracious Disciple of Jesus Christ that acknowledges the sacredness of all of God’s children and spreads joy and dignity to all they interact with.” That’s really hard to do sometimes. It’s just easier to keep your head down, not be rude, but communicate in grunts and gestures as to avoid conversation as much as possible. I totally get the monastic movement. It’s easy to peopling when you spend your day by yourself!
Here's the thing, human beings are really bad at affective forecasting. That means we are really bad at predicting what will make us happy in the long term. I know in the short term, I would be much happier eating chips and playing video games rather than going for a run. Long term I will be way less happy living with heart disease rather than being healthy in my later years. Social interactions are the same way. We may want to keep to ourselves, but research suggests that we are happier if we don’t.
When I’m in a bad mood, generally grumpy, anxious, or just feeling off, I like to cook. I might have mentioned my love of cooking before. We live two blocks away from a Hy-Vee, so to get to feeling right I will walk down and buy the ingredients to cook something fun. Somedays, it’s a twenty-minute trip. Get there, get the stuff, use the self-checkout, and back in a jiffy. I make the recipe, and I feel a bit better. Other days I’m gone for over an hour. I get distracted making friends at the grocery store, just talking with whoever tries to start up a conversation. One time I even found a pulpit supply volunteer that went to Duke Divinity at Trader Joe’s. That place has everything. I come back a lot happier. So much so, I don’t even need to cook to feel better. But obviously I still do.
Fine, so how do I peopling then?
There’s a fine art to having positive social interactions with strangers. I for the life of me cannot figure out why a stranger would want to interact with me. I’m a large, often sweaty, middle-aged man. Listen, don’t judge me. I’m a hillbilly from the Black Hills of South Dakota. I am not acclimated to the heat and humidity of the Iowa summer! You might not be in the mood to peopling, the people around you might not be in the mood, it’s all a very delicate situation. However, I found four strategies that help me when I’m out peopling.
Be aware of your surroundings and who’s there. For the longest time, I would always put headphones in when I was out in public so I could listen to podcasts and audiobooks. It’s very tempting, and comforting, to shut the world out. Smartphones make this easier to do, so time to put the phones away. This is advice for every generation. Most of the older folks like to pretend this is a younger person problem. But studies show that the 50+ crowd is quickly catching up to everyone else when it comes to digital distractions.
Celebrate Self Expression
Everyone is crying to be seen. The clothes we wear, accessories, tattoos, the cars we drive, the music we listen to are all ways we are trying to express our individuality; they are our way of proclaiming our existence as a unique child of God. So celebrate all of that! If someone has an exposed tattoo, they’ll be willing to explain what it means if you ask. If someone is wearing a band t-shirt, tell them to rock on. You don’t even have to like the band. I lie and say rock on to kids wearing Def Leppard shirts all the time. Earrings and necklaces are also great conversation starters. A special note for guys, stick to complimenting things and not the person. “You have lovely earrings,” is way less creepy than “You look lovely in those earrings.” The male experience cannot comprehend how often women get harassed, especially because of their looks, so don’t go there even with good intentions. A colleague of mine once insisted that there is nothing wrong with a man complimenting a woman on her looks, but yes, there really is. You aren’t being kind if you make someone uncomfortable. Oh, and never, ever, mention a woman’s smile (“its nice” “its pretty” “you’d look better if…”), that would change the conversation from a positive social interaction to a justifiable homicide.
The task of peopling gets a lot easier if someone else starts up the conversation. I have the ultimate conversation starter: a cute baby. I make more friends on a casual walk with Noah than I did in all three years in middle school. Admittedly, not a high bar to pass. People love coming up and gawking at one of the cutest babies in the history of babies. I hear dogs are even better at this. On those few blessed occasions when I get to go out by myself, I like to wear my favorite t-shirts. One is a rainbow hued shirt that says “This Pastor Loves You.” That one always starts conversations, and shockingly none of them have been bad conversations yet. Another is an old faded Vault-Tec t-shirt. It’s a reference to the video game series Fallout. Anybody who knows the games will start a conversation when they see the shirt. I have to constantly explain to my wife that being old and faded makes it more authentically Vault-Tec! Whatever you do, don’t blend in. Be the unique and beautiful child of God you are called to be.
Let the conversation go where they need it to go
Like I said, I have dozens of people come “ooh” and “ah” over my son, but almost all of them aren’t really “oohing” and “ahing” over Noah. They are missing a baby in their life. After the obligatory ninety seconds of “What a cute baby,” the admirer will always pivot to “I have a baby in my family too.” Grandbabies are the most common. Occasionally we get a story about a niece or nephew. Sometimes it’s a “I remember when my kids were that little,” nostalgia. That’s all fine. My children get enough love and adoration from their family, random strangers don’t have to sing their praises. They are allowed to share their love of their own babies. Again, people just want to be seen, to express themselves. A good social interaction will give people permission to share how it is with their soul to a person who will listen and not judge.
In the end, we need to remember that God is a planner. God’s plan began before the universe existed, before time
“Soap box” should be updated to “middle aged white guy doing a TikTok rant in his truck,” but I’m limiting myself to two here.
Don’t do this. Ever. Sure it seems nice, but the person behind you is at Starbucks, and probably has enough money to afford the coffee they will be ordering. Be kind and slap that extra money onto the barista’s tip. That person is working a part time service job and that kindness will go a lot further than buying a Type II diabetes inducing drink for your fellow customer.
The fact that 30 million children in the US have already started accumulating debt because of school lunches is one of the biggest failures of our society. It’s going to take a lot of justice and righteousness to fix that, not just kindness https://educationdata.org/school-lunch-debt
This is a real person. When my wife would have potato wedge cravings during her last pregnancy, this wonderful woman would say “You better get her some, or your baby will look like a potato.” Apparently that’s an idiom in Guatemala. I don’t have to get it to love that woman!
Leaving my wife to continue caring for two very active children and a baby by herself. Clergy spouses are a special kind of saint.