‘Words are like eggs dropped from great heights; you can no more call them back than ignore the mess they leave when they fall.’
(Jodie Picoult, Salem Falls)
It’s remarkable how often I end up discussing Germany and the Germans within five minutes of conversing with a total stranger. ‘What do you do?’ they ask. I give them a potted outline. It’s rare that I’m met with a blank, uninterested face: everyone has an opinion about Germany and most people are keen to share it with me. I’m fascinated by these opinions. (So if I’m ever talking to you on this subject, please don’t hold back!)
One man I met recently had a stronger opinion than most. ‘I find them kind of militant’, he said. I was a little taken aback by his choice of word. How had he reached this conclusion, I wondered? ‘I knew some Germans at university’, he told me. ‘They were always in the library. Oh, and they didn’t like walking on the grass when there was a sign saying you shouldn’t.’
That was it. His firm belief that Germans are ‘militant’ was based on anecdotal evidence of a couple of Germans whose behaviour was admittedly slightly unusual for students but in no way justified his chosen adjective. Hard-working and law-abiding, maybe, but not militant. And making sweeping generalisations about a whole nation from a couple of individuals is never a good idea.
It was probably a throwaway comment. It’s unlikely (I hope) that this man believes all Germans to be aggressive, combative and fanatical. But as the quotation above conveys so well, words are powerful things and, like eggs, demand careful handling.
Whether we refer to migrants as ‘cockroaches’, Jews as ‘dirty’ or Germans as ‘militant’, and whether we speak privately or publicly, our words can have unintended repercussions. A careless adjective, a generalized insult: this is how the seeds of prejudice are sown. Let’s choose our words well and show our fellow human beings some respect.