The Words We Choose

The man in front of me was paying for his food when the two employees behind the counter looked at each other.

Three orders in front of them looked identical. One belonged to the man in front of the line and two were mine. Normally the first order belongs to the person at the front of the line, but the staff had to make an addition to one of the orders.

The result of this quick-service restaurant being more quick and less service meant that they now had to open the orders to ensure they were sending the right one home with the right person. I’ll give the staff some credit. I was sure they were just going to guess.

Sure enough the man paying for his food had received my order. They opened the second order and found his food.

“That one’s mine,” said the customer. “The fatso order. Extra meat and cheese. No vegetables.”

The customer laughed at himself. The staff smiled in return.

I took a quick look at the person in front of me. I hadn’t really noticed him before because I was paying more attention to the staff. He was a little overweight with some fat on his stomach. He wore baggy clothes, and that may have helped conceal his weight.

As I paid for my order and left the restaurant, I started thinking more about this customer and what he said.

Was he embarrassed about his order and using humor as a defense mechanism?

Was he angry at himself because he had issues with food and called himself fat to punish himself?

Did he want to lose weight but not know how?

The writer in me dissected his motivation the way I would a character, but I kept coming back to the word ‘fatso’.

He could have used the words ‘heavy’ or ‘obese’ or even ‘fat’. Those are kinder words that one might use to indicate they are dealing with a weight issue.

‘Fatso’ is a word one might use to intentionally hurt another person or oneself.

The more I thought about it, the more I realized that even if he felt guilty about his order he was never going to lose weight. Not as long as he used the word ‘fatso’ to describe his food.

The word he chose revealed the image he had of himself as someone who orders food that makes him fat.

Word choice came up again a few days later when I was reading the book Rise: 3 Practical Steps for Advancing Your Career, Standing Out as a Leader, and Liking Your Life by Patty Azzarello.

In the book she writes about the importance of ‘ruthless prioritization’. Our priorities are driven by the most critical projects that support our organizational mission. The job of a leader is to choose not only which projects the team should spend their energy and focus, but also which ones won’t cause the company to collapse if they don’t get completed.

Although her explanation helped me understand how to implement the practice, her use of the phrase ‘ruthless prioritization’ gave me a clear picture of what I needed to do.

The more I thought about it and my earlier experience with the customer in line, the more I realized the importance of choosing the right words in our daily lives.

At work I was trying to find a way to order my project priorities. But ‘ruthless’ prioritization created a whole different mindset when it came to determining priorities.

Adding the word ‘ruthless’ helped paint a clear picture in my mind about what needed to get done to succeed at the most important tasks.

It made me think more about the importance of words that we use how the shape our thinking.

Do I want to clean up the papers on my desk or get organized by attacking the mess?

Do I work on improving my leadership skills or do I focus on becoming a strong leader who invests energy in his team’s success?

Do I want to be a caring and loving father or a passionate and engaged father?

Do I believe in myself or do I have have unwavering belief in my ability to accomplish my goals?

If one’s goal is be a healthy person, does he get the fatso order or the clean order?

I’m learning that the right words can drive us toward our goals and to becoming better people. But only if we are aware of their power and choose the right ones.

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