Several weeks ago a participant in one of our Elder Care Ministries Zoom coffee chats shared about a course in which she and others are learning to use round words instead of cactus words.
The image of cactus words has stuck with me. It brings to mind those sharp or prickly words. The ones that are barb-like and pierce so easily. The ones that often roll off our tongues or our keyboards just as easily.
While I also appreciate the image of round words, I find it more difficult to explain what I think it means. When someone asked me to name some round words, I was unsure how to answer in that moment.
But I’ve continued thinking about how to describe round words.
Here are some things I think they’re not. They’re not words that simply allow us to go around difficult topics—words that are so soft or squishy that they convey nothing concrete or meaningful. They’re also not words that cause us to go round and round in circles—words that are not defined well enough that we can share a common understanding when we use them.
Instead, it seems to me that round words have substance without having sharp edges. They invite conversation rather than inflict wounds. They communicate meaning not malice, hope not harshness, sincerity not sarcasm, and openness not obstruction.
Because people and situations are so different, I’m not sure how helpful it would be to construct a list of round words. As an alternative, I wonder if it might be more constructive to think about the contexts in which we would be using those words.
Here are some questions that I find helpful when considering what words I might use:
Using round words instead of cactus words isn’t always easy. It takes time and intentionality. It requires considering how others may hear us rather than simply what we want to say. It values communication that can make a lasting difference over the cleverness of a snippy one-liner or a snarky meme.
Perhaps now, more than ever, it’s worth the effort. Using round words might just help us begin to bring about a new way of healing divisions and creating community. May it be so.