Ever since humans started gathering in caves and around campfires, we've been hard-wired for observation and storytelling. We naturally love to share our opinions with one other but, lately, many of us have weaponized the words we're choosing to use.
In person, behind each other's backs and online — especially online — more of us are speaking to each other in ways that are just plain mean.
Some might insist that they're just "telling it like it is" when resorting to cruelty, stereotyping or mockery. But others have become concerned about what's going on and they're stepping forward with a 30-day challenge.
It's called Clean Speech Minnesota.
The effort is being spearheaded by the Minneapolis Jewish Federation in collaboration with nearly 30 other local Jewish organizations. The idea, the effort's leaders say, is to focus on mindful speech for the betterment of humankind, and to respect each other's differences. In doing so, they hope Minnesotans will find common ground to interact with civility instead of hostility.
While the idea began as a way to embrace the ancient Jewish principle of Shmirat Halashon, or guarding the tongue, everyone is welcome to participate. Every day throughout April, you can watch a free, two-minute online lesson about a different aspect of mindful speech, recorded by a Twin Cities Jewish community lay leader and posted at facebook.com/CleanSpeechMN.
That is followed daily by an action item. The opening day, for example, suggests that participants "listen to your own words today. Start to develop an ear for the kinds of things you typically say."
Organizers hope the lessons will lead to more mindful days that minimize snapping at loved ones, making snide remarks on social media or sharing juicy gossip about a rival. (And yes, kids, eye-rolling also is on the no-no list.)
If you're a member of the human race paying even the slightest bit of attention, you know that words have the power to do life-altering damage. But can an attempt to use kinder words, not cruel ones, really make a difference?
Absolutely, said Giti Fredman, leader of the challenge and community connector at the Minneapolis Jewish Foundation.
"It takes time to form a new habit, and we're hoping that, just by taking a small amount of time each day to watch a video lesson, then building upon what you've learned every day, it will be easier to make 'clean speech' a habit. I believe that we all can become role models for others, and that we can raise the bar of what's OK to say — for everyone in the state."
Much as though it seems as though Clean Speech might be a kissing cousin to Minnesota Nice, this is not a homegrown movement. It began in Colorado, with Rabbi Raphael Leban, who launched the first challenge in 2019 after becoming distressed at the increasingly angry discourse he observed in real life and online. Since then, more than 50,000 people have participated.
"The Jewish lessons of mindful speech are really very timeless and universally relevant," he said. "In the last few years in America, we've all become aware of the fact that the ways we speak to and about one another can be incredibly divisive. But I also believe there's an opportunity to correct our speech and come back together. We're just asking for two minutes a day for 30 days, so that's one hour total of someone's time this month. I can guarantee that if you participate, it will change your life for the better, improve your relationships and draw your community together."
It's an idea that's beginning to gain momentum. Last November, Colorado Gov. Jared Polis declared "Clean Speech Colorado Month." And seven more communities will be launching their own Clean Speech challenges around North America this year.
"Our goal is to reach 50 cities within the next five years," Leban said. "We're hoping to reach two million participants in that time. There's already data to indicate that the movement is effective.
"We've conducted participant surveys, and 72% of people said the campaign changed the way they speak," Leban said. "We had 98% say that the lessons of the campaign are still having an impact on them, and more than 90% said they would participate in a campaign again."
One Minnesota organization joining the campaign is Hadassah, the Women's Zionist Organization of America. Marsha Eisenberg is co-coordinator of Hadassah Upper Midwest. Her organization came on board, she said, because the goal of the effort is in line with basic Jewish values, which are the same values Hadassah holds.
She, too, has become concerned with the downward trajectory of interpersonal communications in this country. "Some people seem to feel they can say whatever they want, no matter how hurtful it may be," she said. "That's not acceptable in Judaism, and it shouldn't be acceptable in any society. Clean speech seems like such a basic thing."
She said she hopes the month ahead will allow participants to "truly listen and try to be mindful of what they say and how they treat others."
Whether or not you'll be noticing more nice words in the weeks ahead is still to be determined. Fredman has high hopes. She said that working on the effort has already made her more conscious of ways she can replace hostility with civility in her own life.
"We're hoping to turn the tide a little bit in the opposite direction," she said. "We may not all agree on everything, but we can all agree that the world will be a more beautiful place if we speak nicely to one another."
Julie Kendrick is a Minneapolis-based freelance writer. Twitter: @KendrickWorks