Warning: Use Caution When Uttering “Always” and “Never”

This morning my driver and I got into an interesting conversation about comparative cultures. As a African, he viewed how God blessed the people of Europe and the U.S. with the ability and the opportunity to be scientists and engineers. He saw them as brilliant people, because they developed the cures for diseases and invented the technologies that simplify life whereas for the people in Africa this will never happen. I countered his belief by saying, “Africans have also been blessed with these same skills and talents, but are denied the opportunity to use them by humankind and not by God.” Then he followed by saying, “In Europe and the U.S. the people are all united, and this also will never happen in Africa.” I also countered this belief by saying, “Even before the countries in Europe united they had long history of killing and conquering one another, and so it is possible for Africans to come together such as in the cases of Rwanda and South Africa. These are two nations that are trying to make positive changes for their people as they put aside their differences.”

Throughout our conservation the word “never” was consistently used when he talked about the current state of Africans. I finally paused for a moment to ask him “isn’t your belief that with God all things are possible which we also see written on so many taxi bumpers?” He answered yes. So then I followed with “how can you say things will ‘never’ change in Africa if you believe God makes anything possible.” He responded by saying, “you are right”, but soon after the “nevers” continued to leave his lips as if they were automatically programmed responses.

The words “never” and its opposite “always” are excessively used in our vocabulary. They are often the trigger words that spark explosive arguments between friends and loved ones with statements like “You ALWAYS do that!” or “I NEVER said that!” These two words can also damage the mind sets of those living in the developing world who see things as impossible by saying “Africans will never change” or “the people in Europe and the U.S. will always have it better than we do.” Unfortunately, these are statements that I have commonly heard uttered by many Africans, because these beliefs have become ingrained into their psyche.

Interestingly, these same words can also play a critical role in damaging a witness testimony in a legal suit if one is not paying attention to how they respond to questions. In 2003, I was deposed as part of a civil action against the estate that I had been appointed as the personal representative. During the preparation for this deposition, my attorney coached me on the process such as “only answer what was asked” — “if not clear on what was said, ask the question to be repeated” — “be careful when using the words ‘always’ and ‘never’ and similar ones like ‘all.’” He explained why he cautioned me on the usage of these words by saying “it only takes ONE time or ONE incident to prove what was stated as wrong.” So, as I sat through my eight-hour deposition I was very focused on what was being asked and what words were coming out of my own month. When this process was over I was extremely exhausted by this intense concentration and went home with a severe headache. Before this lawsuit I had no idea how these simple words had such an impact on our lives.

From that moment I started noticing how these are very prominent words in our vocabulary, and how often they can be uttered in a day or even in one conversation. It is very challenging to not over use these words since they seem to slip off our tongue with ease. And even though I am not a perfect practitioner of limiting the use of these words, I do try to sensitize others to their meaning and how they can be damaging.

It is important that we realize that our commonly used vocabulary can program our brain in how we see or think about the world around us. It is when we understand this reality that we can start purging the words in our vocabulary that is limiting or oppressing our way of thinking. Therefore, the words like “never” and “always” can be filed along with sayings like “This is Africa” in a folder called “WORDS NOT TO LIVE BY.”

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