As you may have read somewhere in my blog posts, my mother has moved in with us as she has severe dementia.  It’s been a challenge overall, but many of my childhood memories are coming back.  Those memories that we forget and haven’t triggered in some time.  This blog is about one of the memories that might be useful for all of us.
My mother is Brazilian and has a good handle of the English language, but does have a think accent.  She was born and raised in Brazil and married my dad when he was working as a diplomat in Rio.  They then subsequently moved all over South America.
My mother was an English as a Second Language (ESL) teacher.  She learned English through classes and books, but did not live in the US until 1963, when I was born.  By that time, she was thirty one years old.
Growing Up
As with most families, we had conflict and arguments.  You knew my mother was angry when she flipped from English into Portuguese.  In addition, when things really got heated, the Portuguese curse words slipped out.
I am American with English as my primary language, though Spanish and Portuguese  were my first languages.  My curse word of choice are English words, the standard variety.  As I got older (and bolder), the adult arguments (the big ones) had their fair share of curse words.  As I chose mine carefully and used them, I got little reaction from my mother.  That was odd.  I went for the big one — nothing.
The Power of Words
I soon realized that she did not grow up with the taboo meaning of the curse words.  They did not phase her one bit.  Even at movies, nothing, no reaction. It was then that I realized that if I used Portuguese curse words, wow, that was it.  Was I ever in trouble!  The lectures and punishments grew in severity and size.
The Power comes from Within
This was also a  bigger lesson for me and hopefully for you.  You see, the power is not in the word nor the communicator, but the recipient.  All of the baggage and visceral meaning of English curse words were not instantiated in my mother’s emotional being and culture like the Portuguese ones, the ones that she probably got her in big trouble when she spoke them.
I, on the other hand, was taught the English curse words in the playground and classrooms, certainly not at home.  I learned these words within the culture in which they were viewed as prohibited or restricted from use in a civil context.
What about other words?
Take this concept of learning words in both a cognitive way, but also in a cultural, affective manner.  Just like music, seasons, or smells, words can have a powerful effect on us, but we also need to understand that the power these words have comes from us, which also means that we can take away the power as well.
A song from your childhood comes on the radio and takes you back to a time where you were joyful (or sad).  The temperature rises outside and the sun hits your face, you’re reminded of beaches, vacations, and summer jobs.  The smell of the salt water coming from the ocean reminds me of the times when I would go to Copacabana beach with my cousins and have a lot of fun.
The Lesson for all of Us
The power of words is true for all of us; thus we must be respectful of how we use the words with others, but also when others use words that trigger negative thoughts, we must also disarm them of their power.  For the most part, people are not trying to be malicious when they use words with you that trigger your negative experiences; however, if it does, remove the power.  Similarly, when you use words, you have an opportunity to use words that have positive power to your recipient.  This may be difficult at first since it requires one to know the other in a deeper and broader sense, but then again, isn’t building better relationships one of the keys of a full and successful life?  Whether it’s with family, friends or even customer and prospects, we should be cognizant of the opportunities to be better relationship builders.