Sandra Massey, Research Program Coordinator
I never knew my father but my mother often told me, he believed a person should say what they mean and mean what they say. He valued honesty above all else. I am reminded of this every day because of the nature of my work. How can I say what I really want to communicate in the most concise way? It is interesting to think about the power of words; some words have more than one meaning, some words sound the same but have different meanings and sometimes the meaning of a word changes over time. English is a very complex and confusing language at times; unfortunately it is the only language I speak, read and write.
For example the word value has more than one meaning. Firstly value is often understood as a measure of our willingness to pay, one way or another for goods and services (monetary value); secondly it can be understood as being inherent in material goods shaped by humans. Material culture studies and several heritage related fields are based on the understanding that objects reflect the values, beliefs, and ways of living - Living Heritage, of the person who created, commissioned, and/or used them and by extension the values, beliefs and ways of living of the society within which they were produced. In her article, Makers, Buyers, and Users: Consumerism as a Material Culture Framework, Ann Smart Martin suggests, “material objects matter because they are complex, symbolic bundles of social, cultural, and individual meanings fused onto something we can touch, see, and own.” In addition, value(s) are also understood to mean, morals, principles, or other ideas that inform our choices and motivate our actions as in my father’s words of wisdom above.
The word culture is another example of a word that is often used to mean different things. Culture, as in our values, beliefs, and ways of living is commonly used with the word arts. “Arts and culture” is used to describe creative/artistic expressions mistaking the part for the whole; like saying “baseball and sport” as Greg Baeker once phrased it. Heritage Saskatchewan uses the term Living Heritage to talk about the whole of culture. ‘Living’ may not be the adjective normally used to describe ‘Heritage,’ however it is intuitively understood because it resonates with life experiences. We inherit far more than just our DNA! Our values, beliefs, and ways of living are shaped by family, friends, neighbours, coaches and teachers, as well as the organizations and institutions that govern public life. This Living Heritage in turn, shapes our sense of identity, belonging and place in the world. Who we think we are, where we come from, the language we use, as well as, where we are and what we do, in large measure determines our ability to participate in and contribute to our communities. On the other hand, a culture is also something that can be grown in a petri dish and studied under a microscope. Still, it has something to do with groups / groupings based on shared characteristics.
Community is another word that is often understood differently depending on the context in which it is used. Community can be a geographical location or it can be a community of shared interests; it can be a virtual community as well. In her book, Alone Together, Sherry Turkle describes communities as, “places where one feels safe enough to take the good and the bad.” She says, “ In communities, others come through for us in hard times, so we are willing to hear what they have to say, even if we don’t like it.” She cautions that “If we start to call online spaces where we are with other people ’communities,’ it is easy to forget what the word used to mean. From its derivation, it literally means ‘to give among each other.’ It is good to have this in mind as a standard for online places.” She wonders if, “Perhaps community should have not a broader but a narrower definition. We used to have a name for a group that got together because its members shared common interests: we called it a club. . . . But we have come to a point at which it is near heresy to suggest that MySpace or Facebook or Second Life is not a community.” She admits moreover to having “argued that these environments correspond to what sociologist Ray Oldenberg called ‘the great good place.’ These were the coffee shops, the parks, and the barbershops that used to be points of assembly for acquaintances and neighbours, the people who made up the landscape of life.” In retrospect Turkle admits she “spoke too quickly . . . used the word ‘community’ for worlds of weak ties.”
In Reclaiming Conversation: The Power of Talk in a Digital Age, Turkle concludes that, “When we reclaim conversation and the places to have them, we are led to reconsider the importance of long-term thinking. Life is not a problem looking for a quick fix. Life is a conversation and you need places to have it. The virtual provides us with more spaces for these conversations and these are enriching. But what makes the physical so precious is that it supports continuity in a different way; it doesn’t come and go, and it binds people to it. You can’t just log off or drop out. You learn to live things through.” If you haven’t read her books I highly recommend them, so much food for thought.
Words have incredible power: they can provoke us, inspire us, hurt us, amuse us, confuse us, distract us; you get the idea. So, the next time you want to communicate something important, consider the power of the words you choose, whether you are communicating face-to-face or texting. It isn’t about being politically correct; it is about saying what you really mean and meaning what you say.
Turkle, Sherry, Alone Together: Why We Expect More from Technology and Less from Each Other. New York: Basic Books, 2012.
………………….., Reclaiming Conversation: The Power of Talk in a Digital Age. New York: Penguin Books, 2015.