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Speaking from the heart

“A MAN CANNOT LIE,” said Sigmund Freud (in the sexist language of his day), “if he lies with his lips he will chatter the truth from his fingertips.” Freud is talking, of course, about the way we human beings have of telegraphing our true feelings. “No, please, take all the time you need,” we say, and even as we arrange our features in an oh-so-patient expression, our drumming digits give us away. Most of us know what it is to be betrayed by our own non-verbals. Shifting feet (the desire to flee), a lifted chin (aggression, often compensating for fear), crossed arms (self-protection) … traitors, all. Freud’s words remind us of the old expression “the truth will out.” “Yes,” he seems to be saying, “and it will be the truth about you.”

Sometimes it is not the fingers or the feet that give us away but our voices. Nearly every time we open our mouths, word choice, pronunciation and inflection patterns send subtle and not-so-subtle clues about what is going on in our unconscious minds. In recent years, for example, it has become common to start sentences with the word “so.” After one person in a meeting has made a point, the next speaker might very well start her speech with the word “so” And she may do it whether or not her point relates to the one just made. What does this trend tell us about American English speakers in the year of our Lord 2014? That we are more desirous of connection? That we want to be seen as part of a team?

Another trend in oral communication is the increased use of vowel extension. “What a sweeeet baaaybeee,” people have always said. In the southern U.S. the practice is particularly enthusiastic, but vowel extension has long been used in many English-speaking groups to emphasize words which carry emotional content. These days, however, it is used more and more often in neutral settings — places of business, for example — even board rooms. “I just want to seeee what people thiiink about this,” I heard a dignified bank president say the other day. What does this pattern say about us? That we are so desperate to eliminate uhs and ums in our speech that we lean on the vowels, giving ourselves time to think? That we feel the need to inject emotion into our day? That we want to be perceived as more heart-oriented?

Perhaps the most striking example of shifting fashions in speech is seen in the now-nearly-ubiquitous raised inflection. Statements that were always uttered with falling pitch — “My name is Jana Childers” — now often take the form of a question — “My name is Jana Childers?” Surely this sweeping change says something significant about us. Is it that we are insecure or just more sensitive to the listener? Perhaps it is a way of saying “are you with me?” without saying it?

As it turns out, the Bible has a particular interest in these kinds of questions. “We believe and so we speak,” Paul says echoing the Psalmist (2 Corinthians 4: 13, Psalm 116:10). Another widely-quoted biblical poet seems to take the link between the mouth’s words and the heart’s meditations for granted (Psalm 19:14). Any number of proverbs caution readers about mouths, tongues and lips. But Jesus is the one who makes me squirm. “For out of the abundance of the heart the mouth speaketh,” he says in the memory verse version of the text (Matthew 12:34b, Luke 6:45). “When was the last time I spoke agape?” he makes me ask myself. When was the last time I spoke God’s peace? When do my words ever overflow with the grace that is in God’s heart? No time recently, I have to say … since I cannot lie.

Jana ChildersJANA CHILDERS is dean, vice president for academic affairs and professor of homiletics and speech communication at San Francisco Theological Seminary in San Anselmo, California.

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