The English language has a lot of words. On the whole, we use a little subset of them pretty well, but there are some pairs of words that are often used interchangeably that aren’t actually synonyms.
Sympathy vs. pity
Sympathy is feeling sad for someone else who is sad and in an unfortunate situation.
Pity is also feeling sad for someone, but it has a swirl of condescension in it, and the person being pitied doesn’t necessarily need to be in an unfortunate situation. For example, people have shown pity for the volume of candy and dessert my son eats, but he’s not sad about it.
Straightforward vs. rude
Being direct with another person is not inherently rude. Quite the opposite—often, it is the most polite or humane or appropriate thing to do. We avoid being straightforward because we’re uncomfortable and don’t want to say what we need to say. Or sometimes, we’re just not sure how to say it.
It seems to me that often, we don’t want to hurt the other person, so we don’t say anything. And in some cases, that’s appropriate. (It doesn’t really matter that you don’t love that dress. And do we need to report things happening behind someone else’s back? Occasionally, but not often.) But in cases where it’s causing a problem in your relationship? Or causing the relationship to fail? You need to speak up. Because letting it go and grow—or worse, ghosting—is shitty and causes more pain than the conversation would in the first place. It just relieves you from witnessing the pain that you’re causing.
Don’t be selfish. Figure out a way to say it that is honest but not nasty, and have a conversation.
Nice vs. weak
Honestly, if we could broadly untangle this throughout all the nooks and crannies of the country, our entire country would change drastically for the better.
Ironically, it is people who are not strong enough to be kind who are the most forceful about this.
Truly, being kind is, in many situations, much more difficult than being mean. (I am equating “weak” with “taking the easy way out.”)
The next time you’re in a situation where you’re swearing at another car on the freeway, or angry at the person in front of you in line, or berating your kid for some minor offense, or passive aggressive about your spouse not cleaning up the kitchen again, or making snarky comments about how someone looks, choose to be nice instead. Report back about how easy it is.
Also, it is completely possible to have strong, solid boundaries (read: not be a pushover) and still be very kind. One of The Tall Daddy’s sisters and her husband exemplify this (his other siblings are lovely people as well), as does one of my coworkers. I love to be around people like this because it helps me to be better.
Courtesy vs. consent
This ties together the previous two. Directions, corrections, conversations can be straightforward and polite, and they’re not less real or intentional than the same dialogue delivered in anger, in sarcasm, in frustration.
This applies to heterosexual interactions as well, but my ramblings on that became more than what I’d like to include in this post. “Courtesy does not equal consent” is a sufficiently good mantra, guys.
Mean vs. bullying
Everyone, at some point or another is mean. Not everyone is a bully.
In order for something to be bullying, there needs to be intention to be harmful/hurtful, there needs to be an imbalance of power, and behaviors need to be repetitive.
If something happened once, it’s not a bullying situation. If something happened unintentionally, it’s not a bullying situation. If something happened and both people were going at it (versus one going at it and the other either silent or asking them to stop), it’s not a bullying situation.
Bullying is a substantial problem, but by labeling all (or most) negative interpersonal interactions between kids (or all people) as bullying, we’re diluting and confusing the problem and making it harder to deal with.
That said, there are tons of instances of trauma inflicted in a single shot. Just because it’s not bullying doesn’t mean it’s not serious. But label it what it is.
My bad vs. I’m sorry
“My bad” takes ownership of a mistake. But there’s no component of remorse.
“I’m sorry” — unless it’s used in a convoluted way — has the component of remorse.
Using them together would be ideal. (Or some synonym for “my bad” because honestly, I hate that phrase. It has a swath of “flip” in it, and it rubs me the wrong way.)
Stern vs. yelling
Parents hear this often. So do teachers. We speak to a child or children in a stern voice and the story is, “She was yelling at me!” Yelling includes a louder-than-typical voice. Being stern doesn’t.
This post did not address issues like this that use mental health terminology. Those are up tomorrow.