What your words say about you

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Growing up, one of my mother’s mantras was “think before you speak”. She would drill it repeatedly into my head. And if she had to say, it was usually too late for me.

For those of you that didn’t grow up in the south in the ‘70s, the switch was the primary mode of discipline. It was a green tree branch – my mother used to say it had to be green so wouldn’t break on my ass when she used it. She had had a rough beginning herself, so that was part of her parenting style.


Your words matter: if you only can only deliver a back-handed complement, it’s better not to say anything.

As she evolved, the switch disappeared but I remembered the lesson. I grew up understanding that there’s a power to the words we use. These days, as a martial arts instructor, I push buttons all the time through the words I use – that’s my prerogative, and my role in front of the class is very specific.

The challenge I’m laying down is to become aware of the impact of your words – what you say – on the people around you.

Here’s one reason why.

The other day, one of the high-ranking women said a male classmate had said to another, “I didn’t know I could be raped by a woman.” She knew it was meant for her to hear, like a warped kind of back-handed compliment.

It’s true that in the martial arts sometimes language takes on this “locker-room” aspect – coarse, offensive, insensitive. In many cases, compliments masquerade as insults, and the bar for what’s considered offensive is pretty high.

So perhaps this comment was in keeping with that talk – just a crappy way of trying to give a compliment. But when we start to work on making the environment less “hyper-male” and more inclusive of genders, backgrounds, experiences and such, these types of comments are no longer appropriate. 

This reminder is specifically for all the men who train. One of the problems – a good problem for us, in that we have to solve it – is that we have to be very mindful of the things we’re saying. Because in a martial arts environment like this, we are diverse. We have a huge array of people and we like it that way.

We cannot be tone-deaf. We cannot default to a gym mentality when we’re in the dojo. (We can’t afford to ever default to it, really, not the least reason of which is because it’s so obnoxious that it instantly alienates those around us.)

I myself am acutely aware of this. Not just because of that switch I was telling you about, but because in the role that I play, I know I aggravate and agitate. It can be offensive, and I use hyperbole and rhetoric all the time in a way that pushes boundaries.

But it’s really important that we’re mindful of what comes out of our mouths. We don’t need more “compliments”. If you’re going to give a compliment, give a real compliment, not some weird nonsense that makes people feel uncomfortable.

And if you only can only deliver a back-handed complement, it’s better not to say anything.

We don’t know what people have had to deal with in their lives. We don’t know their vulnerabilities, past experiences, the things they’ve had to overcome. Our work is to become more mindful, to be more attuned to the type of language we’re using.

People are listening.

For more about our larger project of cooperative Jiu-Jitsu and martial arts training, visit the Brooklyn Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu (Brooklyn BJJ) website here.

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  1. Love this!

    Thank you, Shihan.
    This sort of thing is not confined to only the dojo (as you already know).

    In my line of work I use words for healing. Words hold vibratory messages with very specific meaning, depending on the intent of the user; which is imprinted into that vibration.

    Bottom line. We have to check ourselves before we speak and make sure we’re coming from a higher place than our ego.

    Your mamma was a smart lady.

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