Wednesday, July 21, 2010

A Sharp Tongue or a Soft Answer

There's a saying on the marquee of a church that I pass frequently that reads, "A sharp tongue may cut your own throat." As I read The Heretic's Daughter by Kathleen Kent, I couldn't help thinking of that saying, because apparently the main reason Martha Carrier was imprisoned and hanged as a witch was because she had a sharp tongue. 

Everyone, from family members to neighbors, was a target for that tongue. Most people probably just let it roll off their backs, labeling Martha as an unpleasant person you shouldn't cross. However, there were some who took her comments more personally, and, in an atmosphere charged with suspicion and fear, they saw their chance to make Martha pay for that sharp tongue.

Am I saying that Martha was wrong to speak her mind? Not necessarily. Her sister, Mary, who is portrayed as being as gentle as Martha is harsh, was also arrested and spent months in jail (though she wasn't hanged). And I'll admit - there are times when something negative really ought to be said. "I'm not going to let you lie and trick my son into marriage." "Your writing is not up to standard." "You're not getting enough done." "Yes, that dress makes you look fat." The trick is, how can we say those things without creating enemies, as Martha did?

When I used to teach interpersonal communication, one of the concepts I liked and emphasized in class was rhetorical sensitivity.  Put simply, rhetorical sensitivity is the ability to look at a situation and to shape a message to meet the needs of the speaker and the listener in a way that will meet those needs (as much as possible) and maintain a relationship. Martha's responses usually met her needs only. Maybe she didn't care about the relationship. I get that; there are a couple of people at work who really bug me, and I don't care if they like me or not. However, I understand that I'm going to have to live with these people. Even if I wish they would get another job, it's probably not going to happen. I have to work with them, and if I antagonize them, working with them is going to be all that much harder.

How much truer would that be in a frontier community? No one could be completely self-sufficient. Like it or not, Martha was part of a community, and when she refused to make herself a part, the community turned on her and her family.

It's sad. I don't think Martha was a bad person, and the characters she sparred with were pretty despicable.  But the circumstances gave them power, and one thing despicable people in power will do is dispose of their enemies.

There's a lot of wisdom in Proverbs 15:1 - "A soft answer turneth away wrath: but grievous words stir up anger." (KJV)

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