Wednesday, April 20, 2011

Use your words

What I'm thinking about today comes out of The Four Agreements.  If you haven't read it, here is the website --the agreements are listed right there on the front page.  I read the book years ago, and I remember thinking I could have just stood in the bookstore and read the four agreements off the book jacket, because all the book does is elaborate and elaborate and elaborate. Since that kind of repetition makes me a little crazy, when I closed the book, I thought I'd forget about them.  But two of them, the first two, keep coming up.  I think about them pretty often. I couldn't even remember the other two until I Googled to see if there was a website for them somewhere, and of course there is. The third and fourth ones sound fine, but they're not the ones I think about.

The first agreement is "Be impeccable with your word."  When I first read it, it made me a little uncomfortable, I have to admit.  First of all because the word "impeccable" sounded like some kind of moral perfectionism, and that irritated me.  But also because it struck a little too close to home.  I can think fast.  I can process a lot of information quickly (although that doesn't keep me from being brick-wall-obtuse at times).  And I sometimes use that knack of thinking quickly to manipulate people, to get them to do something or just to make my own life easier. I'm not proud of it, especially not now that I am so much more aware of it.

An example.  Back in the day, before it became de rigueur to offer no-questions-asked returns, you had to have a good reason if you wanted to return something to a store: it had to be defective, or you'd bought it for a gift and it didn't fit, or whatever.  So on occasion when returning something, I would spin a plausible story and tell it without batting an eye.  I figured, what difference did it make if it wasn't the truth?  I didn't know the salesclerk, s/he didn't know me, there was no real reason I shouldn't be able to return the item, so big deal.  But now that makes me uncomfortable.  I don't do it anymore.  (Although, to be impeccable with my word here, I have to add:  now you can return stuff without much hassle, too.)

It was fairly harmless stuff.  I almost never straight out lie, but I'm owning this: I am capable of dancing around with words to mold what people think.  but you know what?  I've come to see that once you've said "I almost never straight out lie," you're already in trouble, if you ask me.  If the Agreement had said, "Don't ever lie," it wouldn't have hit me as hard, because it didn't really seem like lying since Lying is Bad and this kind of stuff didn't seem that bad.  I didn't do it in situations where it would make a difference.  But be impeccable with your word is a different thing than don't lie, a harder thing. It has to do with using words responsibly, with saying just exactly what you mean, no more and no less.  It means using your words to accurately reflect what's going on in your head or your heart or your body.  It's not easy.  I've been working on it ever since.

I also think wording it that way ("Be impeccable with your word") completely subverts any arguments about whether or not it's OK to lie sometimes.  Because of course it is. I don't even have to give any examples.  We've all told social lies, white lies, the kinds of fictions that spare people's feelings when your true opinion couldn't possibly do any good.  Being impeccable with your word isn't about slicing people open with your opinions, it's about being aware of what you're saying, and not either over- or under- stating your case to get what you want.

I can't claim success, because sometimes I'm spineless or afraid, and sometimes I'm lazy or indifferent.  and sometimes I'm just not a very good person.  More recently I've come to realize that it's not just when you speak that's important, it's also when you remain silent.  Do I not speak up when I should?  Do I let my silence imply agreement when really I disagree?  Do I stay silent when I long to be heard?  And if you include that, I probably can't even claim 60% success.  But as I've worked on it, being impeccable with my word has become more and more important to me.

Next time (or sometime soon), on to Agreement #2:  Don't take anything personally.

And can I also add, for the record, do you think they could have warned us that they were going to completely change the blogger website?  Hmmmm.  Maybe they did and I just missed it.  It's not too bad, but I did have to hunt around a bit to figure out how to do what I wanted to do.


  1. and of course not long after I posted this I realized a time this week when I have not been impeccable with my word. work in progress.

  2. oh, lord, I should not have posted this. I've spent the last five hours being reminded of times I've not done it. blecch.

  3. Just don't take it down!!!

    This is not something I have heard of, well... exactly phrased this way. I'm gonna go look at the website now. Very good post!

    (p.s. none of us is perfect, life would be a huge snooze-fest if we had nothing to work on)

  4. Great post. I don't think there is a person among us who hasn't been less than "impeccable" with their words. And 1. Don't beat yourself up over the post and 2. Don't take it down either.

  5. Holy crap! You mean to tell me you're HUMAN?!

    Look, I don't want to degrade anyone here, certainly not you, but things like this make me want to beat the author about the head and neck with a stick for setting the bar higher than anyone can possibly reach. Or anyone that has to interact with other people on a daily basis. If you're some sort of mountain-living monk or the offspring of a deity or something, you might be able to pull this off. Other than that, I think it just makes you human. You try to be aware of it, you try not to do it, and when you do, you forgive yourself and move on with better intent for the future.

    Sorry. I didn't mean to get all ranty. These things just always strike me as easy to preach, but nearly impossible to practice with more than a 70% success rate (yes, I just pulled that percentage out of my behind).

    One last thing. I used to work in retail way back when explanations were required. It was a loss-prevention method designed to discourage people who shoplifted, then tried to return what they stole. No one cared what the reason for your return was, as long as you had one. It never really worked. That, and the advent of computers tracking everything, is why you no longer have to explain yourself.

    Book over.

  6. thanks for chiming in, y'all. I put this stuff out there thinking I'm the only one that ever does this, and it's nice to know it strikes a chord elsewhere, too. @Delia, I agree about the moral perfectionism thing. "Impeccable" is impossible. I think there is some worth in thinking about it, though. What I/we should *not* do, though, is exactly what I spent the next several hours after I posted this doing-- feeling miserable about the times I've not been impeccable. That is wasted time.