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When the best words aren’t the right words

Dena and I have been having a lot of conversations with our daughter about Thankfulness because of the napkins on our kitchen table.

Every napkin has a discussion prompt for people at the table, and this one is Sprout’s favorite:

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It’s her favorite because of the cat, not because of the question.

The other night, we wanted to know what she would say, but she stonewalled us when asked to answer the question about what she was thankful for that day.

Part of it was just being an overtired kiddo having a late dinner. Part of it was probably the fact that she’s facing all the sea changes that come with a new baby brother, starting kindergarten, and missing her friends from day care. But there’s also the part of it where she just didn’t seem to understand the question.

So we worked to define thankfulness for her, and how it wasn’t just about saying thank you when somebody gives you something. You aren’t only thankful for presents, or for somebody bringing you the ranch dressing when you want some for your broccoli. It’s about appreciating what other people do for you that they choose to do for you. It’s about appreciating what makes you feel fortunate.

It wasn’t clicking. She got frustrated with us. We set the topic aside and gave her an opportunity to think about the question some more until dinner the next night.

And that night I asked something different: “What are your three big thank yous for today?”

I took a phrase she was already familiar with, I narrowed it down to a set number of things, and kept the question short without a lot of additional explanation to process.

It took her all of 30 seconds, and she felt good about her answers.

Yes, it’s more precise to ask her what she’s thankful for. But for our intended audience, there was this extra layer of unpacking the words themselves that kept her from joining the conversation.

When I was younger, I always associated having a larger vocabulary or being able to deploy more complicated words and ideas as a sign of intellect. I blame all the Frasier I watched.

It’s one thing to be precise, and always use exactly the word you want. It’s another thing entirely to be clear, and try to always use the words that will be understood.

Using words you think your audience will readily understand isn’t inherently condescending. It’s a way of talking to people that shows you’re listening to them.

You show that you pay attention, and your attention is a sign of respect.

It’s also about identifying what your purpose is. If we wanted this to be a lesson in the definition of thankfulness, we may or may not have succeeded. But our goal was to encourage our daughter to express gratitude. That purpose was more important than precision.


I do an exercise with students where we talk about the way Mister Rogers wrote his tv show. In an interview with two of the writers, they discuss a variation on the process that’s a joke that tells the truth:

Fred Rogers was always laser-focused on making sure each word was appropriate to his audience.

He spoke to children on their own terms because he knew that the audience was what mattered. He wasn’t concerned with only appearing kind on camera, or looking like he had all the answers, because he left ego out of the equation.

His focus on his audience, in listening to how they interpreted the world (and their concerns about it) was practicing kindness.

Because speaking to others or writing for others can, and should, involve thinking about how you can treat your audience with kindness.


When I was interviewing for my current teaching job, they asked me to give a sample lecture to a media criticism class on any topic I saw fit.

I went with applying the Buddhist concept of Right Speech to how we evaluate media.

To summarize the concepts, Right Speech is about making sure that our communication with other people is coherent, wholesome, wise, and skillful. There are four principles that help judge if speech clears this bar.

Do we avoid lies or deceptions?

Do we avoid divisive statements?

Do we avoid abusive statements?

Do we avoid idle chatter?

Avoiding lies and deceptions is not just about speaking the truth in any given moment, but reliably acting as a truthful voice.

Avoiding divisive statements is about abstaining from slander, and trying to use speech to bring people together instead of isolating them.

Avoiding abusive statements is about showing compassion and respect for the audience, and using language that they will appreciate and take to heart.

Avoiding idle chatter isn’t just about speaking with purpose, but framing your speech so that you address topics at the proper time with words intended to remain valuable beyond that moment.

As an individual, these goals can act as a good baseline for being seen as a respectful, and respectable, person.

When thinking as a writer or person who communicates through different media platforms, it can act as a good metric for if what you’re sharing with the world feels more like useful signal or distracting noise.

If you sit down to write for others, only focused on what they will think of you, you’ll never be happy with the result. If your only metrics for success are Likes, page views, or how much you got paid for your work, you’ll wind up in an endless loop where the next project will always have to seem bigger and better.

If you’re only writing with the hope that you’ll be recognized as a great writer, no praise will ever feel like enough.

There’s satisfaction to be found in the attempt to make today’s work an act of kindness. To make today’s words something that your audience will find useful whether they encounter it now or ten years from now.

There’s satisfaction to be found this way even if your audience is ten people instead of 10,000.

And there’s satisfaction to be found in seeing how much gratitude you can express for the opportunity to help others. To speak to them directly, honestly, and thoughtfully.