Updated: Sep 28, 2018
Several times now over the past fortnight I’ve found myself talking with people about the concept of their ‘unintended audience.’
That is, who might be listening to your conversation or reading your post online that you didn’t intend to reach.
With R U OK? events happening around the country in the lead up to R U OK?Day tomorrow and Love Your Body Week (The Butterfly Foundation) last week, it is no surprise that a lot of my conversations of late have been about how the words we use matter when it comes to mental health.
We could talk for hours on communications theory on intended and unintended audiences. We could talk for hours on the benefits of using strengths based language and thinking about how we can challenge our personal biases when it comes to communicating with others.
But what I’d really like to talk with you about is how we can be more conscious of the words we use and why that is important for our unintended audiences?
What is a young person learning about society’s values and beliefs through overheard conversations?
What is the emotional state or life experience of someone reading your social media post? What judgments do they hear?
This is all very deep and conceptual stuff to think about, so let’s look at it using a few simple scenarios.
Scenario One. A café. Talking with your friend as your child watches some cartoon on your smart phone.
What you say: Hasn’t so and so stacked it on? No wonder she doesn’t go out much anymore. I wouldn’t either if I was her. She needs to skip a few meals if she’s ever going to lose those pregnancy pounds.
What your child hears: If I'm fat, people won’t like me and I won’t be able to do fun stuff I want to do.
Scenario Two. An office. Talking with your friend on the phone in an open plan workplace.
What you say: Did you hear about so and so from school? He took his own life. It’s so sad. I just can’t stop thinking about his two young children. How could he? I could never be so selfish.
What your workmate hears: Don’t ask that colleague for help. They don't understand what it’s like to live each day with thoughts of suicide and feel like people are better off without me.
Scenario Three: On social media. You telling your partner about something you posted online earlier that day.
What you say: Look how many likes I'm getting on this. My ex needs to wake up and realise he is in the wrong. People agree with me!
What your teenager hears: It’s ok to share personal details about your relationships online. I can get my opinions and feelings validated by the number of likes on a social media post.
Look, I love a joke and a gossip as much as the next person. But I also know, as an expert eavesdropper, there are many things that have been hurtful or unhelpful that I’ve overheard and wish I hadn’t. It really makes me wonder what I've said without thinking of my unintended audience.
Think about the children in your life sitting unnoticed in the corner of a room filled with adults in conversation. In what they overhear, what are they learning about self worth? What are they learning about care and compassion?
It’s not about being perfect and pious in your communication.
It’s about acknowledging the potential subtle but long lasting ramifications of the words we use, especially when it comes to our unintended audiences.
Little pitchers have big ears.
Support Information: If this article brings up tough emotions for you, please talk to a trusted family member or friend, or reach out for professional support.