When Your Words Cry “Wolf”

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Every day we hear phrases like these and read headlines offering us “essential”, “incredible”, or “unbelievable” something-or-other. Upworthy has made an evil art form out of using such titles as click-bait. If a description of anything doesn’t include a superlative or a promise of tears it’s good for nothing. But what happens when we run out of superlatives and absolutes (if we haven’t already)?

If everything is amazing nothing is. By definition, not everything can be the best or worst. If every piece of advice is essential and we can’t live without those life hacks, well we should just give up now; life is hopeless.

A good principle to use in all (yes all; this is proper use of an extreme) communication is this: words communicate meaning. When we persistently misuse them we skew and undermine that meaning. Meaning matters; without it we don’t know what to believe or who to trust. To abuse terms, to over-value inflate whatever we are describing, is to bankrupt words of meaning and our own reputations of trustworthiness.

You’ve all heard the story of the boy who cried wolf. Over and over he raised a false alarm about a wolf killing the sheep he was watching. Finally, all his fellow villagers were so fed up they refused to listen any more. One day a wolf did come. The boy cried “wolf, wolf!” but to no avail. His words meant nothing and his trustworthiness was nil. So it is without serial abuse of superlatives and extremes.

Gold is valuable because it’s rare. Wood is cheap because it’s common and disposable. We’ve turned words which should have the value of gold into a pile of wooden nickels. No longer can we trust them and use them as something of worth. What happens when something is essential or incredible? We have no way of describing it adequately because our words, the currency of communication, have lost all value.

I want my recommendations and descriptions to matter. When I say a book is “well-worth reading” I want it to mean just that; not the best, not a “must read”, but a book of value for the reader. When I say a piece of advice is “useful” I want people to see it that way without having to lie and say it’s essential. If I am able to use these positive descriptions well then all of a sudden those occasions when a book is the best I’ve read recently and a piece of wisdom is crucial have real meaning.

We are reaching (or have reached) a point where discerning people immediately disregard overstatement because it is so common. If you want your words to matter don’t cry wolf. Don’t add to the pile of wooden nickels. Make your good good and your bad bad so that your great can be great and your awful truly awful.

I live in the Nashville area and spend my days helping churches with leadership development. My nights are spent writing and rooting for Minnesota sports teams. I also podcast a bit. I'm the author of The Pastor's Kid: Finding Your Own Faith and Identity, Help My Unbelief: Why Doubt is Not the Enemy of Faith, and The Curious Christian: How Discovering Wonder Enriches Every Part of Life