How Carefully Do You Choose Your Words?


A few weeks ago I called my mother to tell her I was coming to stay with her because I had no heat or hot water. I was feeling edgy, but she was happy to help. We chatted for a few minutes, I said I’d see her soon, and then she made a parting comment that was essentially a gratuitous potshot at my political beliefs.

I flew off the handle. Some of the words that came out of my mouth are not for “family” consumption, shall we say. When I hung up, I almost knocked the phone’s cradle off the end table. Seeing stars, I packed my bag and went to do work in the Starbucks where my brother would pick me up in a few hours.

Shortly after arriving at Starbucks, I called my mother and apologized for cursing and told her if I died in an accident on my way there I didn’t want those to be the last words I said to her. She chuckled, seemingly unfazed, but I knew she got my message. All of it. I was raised by a woman who used to point out Dear Abby’s admonition to “never go to bed mad.”

Perhaps that’s why, despite all that’s been said about journalistic ethics and our responsibility as bystanders (both important and meaningful subjects), the story of the man who was pushed to his death on the subway tracks in New York City this week is about another lingering thought for me. It is this:

I am so, so sorry that he and his wife had just had an argument that morning. She tried to call and couldn’t reach him. It’s so haunting.

Most of us didn’t know 58-year-old Ki Suk Han and don’t know his widow, but they have bestowed us with a gift nonetheless. Because if this holiday season is about nothing else for you, I urge you to make it about mindfulness in your words and their implications.

This isn’t a sweeping suggestion that we all stop taking things for granted because someone’s passing touched us. Not that there’s anything wrong with that, but goodness, we could go down that road every day. This is more specifically a suggestion to create a habit. You have control of how you leave your interactions. If you walk away feeling uneasy, it is incumbent upon you to make that feeling go away. Right it.

When I told a friend the aforementioned story about my mother, she laughingly remarked that I didn’t call because I was sorry but because it would make me feel better. Actually, let’s look at that. First of all, I’d have remorse over cursing at anyone. But let’s say something tragic happened to me en route to my mother’s house. By making that call, I would have given my mother some semblance of peace. She knew she intentionally provoked me. And vice versa.

This habit I’m asking you to form isn’t about the dead. It’s about the living. It’s about love and expression of that love and thoughtfulness in communication. Death just makes it ever clearer that it’s a risk to be willy nilly about it.

I have no doubt my mother and I will go at it again. Our relationship would be kind of boring and shallow without disagreement. She’s not frail. She’s strong and feisty. I can only hope to be that strong and feisty as I age. Sometimes the profound respect can slip on either side. When I was younger I would have stewed and stubbornly distanced myself after a tiff. Now? Are you kidding? How many 50-year-olds don’t have a mother to argue with?

As families gather and tensions escalate this holiday season, there is so much more opportunity to make our communication count. Let’s soothe, encourage, enlighten, lighten. Maybe intelligently challenge, as opposed to confront, or ask questions that will help us understand. Perhaps pass up the chance to dig or make someone feel diminished. Not even passive aggressively.

If a fight escalates, keep it fair. Relaying how you feel as a result of someone’s words can be less accusatory than pointing a finger and ultimately keep the heat down. Emotions can be expressed without us creating enemies of each other.

What transpired on that Manhattan subway platform this week also sparked something else in me. It brought back a memory of when I first moved from suburbia to my current urban life 14 years ago. Not long after getting comfortable with the subway system, I recall being rocked by the story of a young woman killed when she was pushed off a platform.

At no time since have I ridden the subway without thinking of that. I am never near the edge when I do and I’m almost always next to something stationary on the platform because it makes me feel like I’ll have some kind of recourse. After 9/11, I also began staying as close to a stairway as possible when I am waiting for a train. This is just my way.

Awareness. Mindset. Comfort level. They all play in, whether we’re taking a subway or doing anything else that makes us feel vulnerable. With this latest incident, I’ll almost certainly be in a place of heightened vigilance for a while.

Whether I’m getting around the city or choosing my words.

Nancy Colasurdo is a practicing life coach and freelance writer. Her Web site is and you can follow her on Twitter @nancola. Please direct all questions/comments to