Words have so many meanings, and not just because they each have a definition (or sometimes many definitions) in the dictionary. One word can have different meaning depending on the tone, the context, the person saying the word, the person hearing the word, the language in which it's spoken, the geographic location of the speaker or listener, the culture of the speaker or listener, etc.
I don't know how many people are like me, but I think about my words and try to carefully choose the words I want to use before I speak. I try not to be offensive, to make my point without causing harm. To consider the listener before deciding which specific words or phrases to say. I wonder how many times through my lifetime I've failed at this and accidentally caused harm to someone - someone who didn't tell me I offended them or hurt them.
I often think about an interaction I had about four years ago. I was set up for the first time at Bates-Hendricks Street Fest. I was nervous wondering how SuperMom Headquarters would be received, wondering how I would be received. Hopeful that I'd exceed my sales expectations for the day. Cautiously optimistic that I could keep my chronic illness at bay during a long day and avoid a cataplexy and/or sleep attack. I was proudly wearing my new SMHQ t-shirt. "Trust me, I'm a SuperMom", along with the SMHQ logo, were emblazoned in red across the front of my shirt, and, paired with jeans and sneakers, I tried to portray myself as simultaneously professional and casual and approachable.
Most shoppers were pleasant; a few asked about my business or products. I sold several small items, and I took note wondering whether the same products would sell again at the next event the following month. About halfway through the festival, a woman came into my booth. She was older than me and accompanied by two women who seemed utterly disinterested, obviously just tagging along or providing transportation to this woman whom I took to be their mother. She stopped midway past my booth, quickly scanned my displays, and walked straight up to me at the checkout stand (which I had made myself specifically for such events; I was very proud of it). "What makes YOU a SuperMom?" Seemingly harmless words. Accompanied by a scoff and a scowling face, though, these words became almost threatening. "Well, it's a play on my business name," I said, pointing to my banner. "SuperMom Headquarters". "But what makes YOU a SuperMom? Your shirt says trust you - you're a SuperMom. Why should I trust that YOU'RE a SuperMom?" So this was a test. To validate my worth to a stranger. A stranger who obviously had already decided I was NOT worth the title of SuperMom, not knowing anything about me. "I think that all mothers are SuperMoms, hence my business name. I don't believe it's my job to tell any mom they aren't doing a good job; I'm just here to support them any way I can." She shifted her weight, seeming to pounce physically, as well as, verbally. I moved my hands from my checkout stand to my side, unaware that I was displaying my discomfort. "Well, I had 5 children, was a single mom, and two of my daughters are here with me. They'll tell you I am the BEST mom. I have more experience than you, so maybe I should be the one who's the SuperMom, not YOU." And she walked away. I looked over as a would-be shopper set down the item she was looking at and walked out of my booth.
I thought about how I could have validated myself: I have two children, own and operate a business by myself, I have an "invisible" disability (narcolepsy), I volunteer at my kids' school, help with their baseball teams, support my husband, care for pets, help run a household, etc. My hands shook with disappointment - in myself for not standing up for myself, and in her for feeling that she needed to minimize someone else's experience to maximize her feelings about her own experience. I also wondered what her daughters would have said, had they actually been asked.
I don't dwell on that experience as much as I did in the days immediately following, but I do think of it often. I think about it when I begin to doubt myself as a business owner, parent, or spouse. I think about how that woman probably forgot about her words as soon as she said them, but I still hear them bouncing around in my brain. I think about how my words certainly affect others in similar ways. Will my words to serve as a reminder for how wonderful the listener is, how proud I am of them, of my support for them as a human? Or will they bounce around in the listener's brain, chastising them, dehumanizing them, scorning them? I hope, far more often than not, that my words serve as a positive reminder that the people who hear them are wonderful, worthy, beautiful humans. I hope that I keep remembering that woman at the street fest, and the effect her words had on me, so that I can remember not to make someone else feel the way I felt after our interaction.