Often, in our family comprised of all men and boys except for me and the pets, the talk often turns a little … shall we say biological? And it’s true that over the last five years, I’ve grown more comfortable with it … and even join in with it … more than I like to admit. But almost on a weekly basis, I learn new phrases and sayings that I find shocking and offensive. Thankfully, the boys usually aren’t using those phrases themselves. They’re just “educating” me when something I’ve said is now part of the new slang … and not in a good way.
“Where do you even hear these things?” I ask.
“Remember, we go to public school,” they’ll say.
And maybe that’s the problem, though I don’t want to get into a discussion about school choice here. What I suspect, though, is the language and words they hear at school, and probably on social media and YouTube and video games (though they’ll never admit the latter, lest we decide to limit them), is a reflection of a larger cultural trend. Our talk has gotten louder, cruder, and more outrageous than ever. It might have something to do with a dogged defense of the US right to free speech: according to a recent Pew poll, “Americans are much more tolerant of offensive speech than people in other nations.” At the same time, 59% agreed with the statement “Too many people are easily offended these days over the language that others use.” Which seems to suggest we’re a people who want to say outrageous things without consequence, but we don’t want to hear it. Ironic, isn’t it?
We often laugh when a child says something inappropriate. “Kids say the darnedest things,” we chuckle. But now, it seems that everyone is saying the darnedest things. And because we don’t want to look weak or misunderstood, or maybe just because what they said riles our feathers, we say the darnedest things back. It’s not just crude language, though there’s certainly a lot of that. It’s also insensitive and offensive language. It’s a rant that ignores the valid points of someone else’s argument. It’s a personal attack instead of sticking to the issue. It’s the kind of thing people follow up with, “I’m just saying.” Or when someone shows disapproval, “Just kidding.” Only they weren’t.
What does all this have to do with being thankful?
In Ephesians 5, Paul has a lot to say about the way we talk. He says we should avoid deceptive, empty words. He admonishes us not to talk about sin and immorality as if it were okay. And he urges us not to waste our time with obscenity, foolish talk, or coarse joking. Instead, he says we should use our mouths for praise and worship. And especially for giving thanks.
I’m trying to imagine what this change from coarseness to gentleness would look like in a home filled with boys. Certainly it doesn’t mean there’s no place for humor and joking. Based on stories in the Gospels, it seems even Jesus enjoyed a good laugh, even of the biological kind: I’m thinking of a log in the eye, the blind leading the blind, cutting off a hand to keep from sinning, straining out a gnat while swallowing a camel, or a dad giving his son a snake instead of a fish. But as Paul instructed us earlier in Ephesians 4:29, the words of our mouth need to be used to build others up, not tear others down. And what better way to let our words both encourage others and honor God than by offering thanks?
Beyond our homes, though, how can we move from coarseness to gentleness in a world full of tell-it-like-it-is bullies? Gratitude changes the discussion. It shines light on what is good. It disarms the power of rude and insensitive talk. I think of my social media feed, where so many posts fit into the crude or outrageous or offensive category, and how easily one friend’s posts about what she’s thankful for stand out from the others.
A few weeks ago, Steve, the boys, and I were having dinner out at a chain restaurant we often frequent. The last few visits hadn’t gone so well. In fact, I was eating that night for free because my last meal was messed up so badly the manager had given me a comp card for the next time. It had been several months since we’d been back.
As the server brought our food, I noticed that every single thing was right. Every substitution, every customization, even the refilled pickle jar and the delivery of extra napkins at just the right time. Since I felt like I had complained so much on my last visit when everything went wrong, this time I decided to offer my gratitude.
“I’m going up to say thank you for doing a good job,” I said.
The boys were shaking their heads before I could even finish.
“No,” they begged, wide-eyed. “People don’t do that.”
“Well, they should,” I said. “I don’t want to complain when things are bad but not compliment when things go well.”
Steve was fine with the idea, though he wasn’t planning to march up there with me. The boys, on the other hand, were practically hiding their faces, so embarrassed by what I was about to do.
Two young men were standing near the counter dressed a little differently than the rest of the employees. “Are one of you the manager?” I asked.
“We both are,” they said, visibly hesitant about what they expected to come next.
“I just wanted to say thank you. Everything was perfect! Your team did a great job!”
One of the men started laughing, and the other man exhaled loudly.
“Not what you were expecting, huh?” I said.
“Not at all,” one of them replied.
A third young man who was wiping the counter behind them piped up. “And, who do you think took their order?”
“That’s right,” I said. “This guy right here took our order, and everything was perfect.”
I smiled as I walked back to the table. The boys were still a little embarrassed, but they also realized the employees were happy I’d spoken up.
“I guess that was okay,” one of the boys said, giving me a high five. And then we gathered up our stuff and headed out.
Does that mean we never complain when our order is wrong, respond sarcastically at others’ outrageousness, or stand up for ourselves or others when confronted? I don’t think so. But even those conversations can be transformed when we’re not always just the complainer or the comedian or the critic.
Maybe in addition to educating each other on what not to say, we could also be examples of all the wonderful words we should say to each other, things like “I hear you,” “You are important to me,” and maybe the simplest one of all: “Thank you.” As Paul instructs the Philippians, “Let your gentleness be evident to all. The Lord is near” (4:5).