My fascination with words probably began when I was a kid. I wrote stories upon stories in my room, “hiding” them because I didn’t want anyone to read them. (I’m a geek… so think historical fiction stories.) But my relationship with words changed the day I was introduced to the concept of ‘the minimizer.’
Merriam-Webster’s defines minimize as: “to reduce, or keep to a minimum” (adult version).
Looking this up, I saw this odd button that said “Defined for Kids.” Clicking it in curiosity……as I have a couple kids always asking what words mean…. I clicked on it and it said:
“to make as small as possible” (kids’ version).
I am sitting here writing and smiling, reflecting on how much simpler but how much more real, to the point and understandable that definition is, and, I believe, how it flows much more in line with the purpose of minimizers.
The day I learned about minimizers I was sitting in my first “counselor” training at the age of 18. I was going to be a volunteer for the crisis and suicide hotline -211- that required what, at the time, seemed like endless hours of training J. (What if I had used ‘pointless’ hours there.) Anyhow, on this day we dove into the power of the word just, and my life was changed forever. I don’t really say this lightly, and I honestly don’t think I am being overly dramatic here… my life was truly changed. I have never thought about words in the same way. Not in my work, not in my daily life, not when I read or write or speak. You see, the purpose of just is to minimize, to make as small as possible.
'Just say no!'
'Just make more money'
'Just add water'
It all sounds so simple... right?
Last night I was at a school spaghetti dinner, and there was a table of Girl Scouts who were selling (the world’s most delicious) Girl Scout cookies for just $3.50. (I mean worth every penny.) Or a parent talking to a child tells them it’s “just a couple more minutes” or while you are waiting for the clock to hit 5 o’clock on a Friday, you are telling yourself … “just 3 more hours!” In all instances, we are looking to make the cost, the minutes, the hours, the impact on oneself, as small as possible. We are looking to minimize the overall picture in order to make it seem accessible, or easier. Not feeling the full impact of the last two hours of the work week.
‘Just’ is a powerful word.
When you are looking to validate a person’s experience or hear a person’s story, our gut might be to throw in a ‘just’ or an ‘only’ as in “you are just stressed,” “just tired,” “just lonely” or “just a temperature of 101.” Unfortunately, the word doesn’t change the reality.. but it tries to make it feel a little less.. big, or as Meriam Webster suggests…. small. Sometimes, we need to realize the full impact of the stress though, the full impact of the temperature… in order to address what is really going on. Sometimes things aren’t small.
Thus… I have over time made every attempt to remove ‘just’ from my vocabulary, unless completely necessary.
What if we did the same with happiness… so you’re “just happy,” “only excited”?!? That doesn’t sound as great….
This eye-opening experience of learning about minimizers opened my world to a whole new interpretation of words. Listening for the adjectives that people choose to describe.
The new car.
The old car.
The sports car.
The fast car.
The slow car.
The fun car.
The dangerous car,
The expensive car.
The cheap car.
What if these all described one car?
It all depends on your perspective, your interpretation, and how it relates to you. Could you imagine one car that might fit these descriptors for different people in your life?
What type of influence do you experience when you hear ‘middle’ child, ‘oldest’ child, the ‘only’ child, ‘baby’ of the family? Small words, big impact.
Mad libs… remember those? Recently we got a wedding invitation with an RSVP in mad libs style response (brilliant idea.. shout out to my soon to be cousin-in-law). How many different ways do I have to create a response simply in the blank words that I have to fill in? One line of the mad lib includes:
“We wish them years of ______ and _____________.”
Health and happiness?
Arguing and yelling?
Cold weather and hot fires?
By simply changing a few simple words attendees can easily return the card as sweet and loving, sincere and hopeful, mean, hateful, funny, silly or inappropriate. Yet the core of the paragraph doesn’t change.
You see we know the influence and impact of a single word. But we don’t always hear it.
One of the major influences in my work and my life, is the one word people use as the quantifier… the word they maybe unconsciously use to change the story. It is not about what the word means to me.. but what it means to you, and why you chose to describe it in that specific way.
When and if we can learn to listen for those small, and defining, words, our world is opened to a whole new reality. A whole new sense of others’ reality. A way to cherish and honor one another’s experience for what it is. Not minimizing, but hearing, digesting, and challenging either our desire to minimize or to make it easier to swallow. Noticing the word a person chooses to describe their day, job, family, can change everything.
Use words intentionally, and listen with a discerning ear.
*Major shout out to my 211 hotline ‘peeps’/ family!