What Are Words Worth?

Consider the story of a first-grade teacher from New Jersey, fired for a controversial Facebook post.

According to an article in the Jan. 12 issue of The Star-Ledger, the teacher, in March 2011, posted on her Facebook page, “I’m not a teacher – I’m a warden for future criminals!” The school’s principal was informed the next day, and according to the newspaper, the principal found her to be “unrepentant.”

News of the post spread and led to a complaint against the teacher and an unpaid suspension. The judge ruled against her, who argued First Amendment protection. She was fired after the ruling and the verdict was upheld on appeal Jan. 11.

“A word is not the same with one writer as it is with another. One tears it from his guts. The other pulls it out of his overcoat pocket.” – Poet William Wordsworth

In this case, the teacher’s words equaled the worth of her job. She lost a career because of the words she chose to use, and equally – perhaps more importantly – the manner in which she expressed themdidn’t help.

In an age when words can reach hundreds, thousands, millions in a matter of seconds, minutes, hours, there is no greater time for pause. There is no greater time to measure our words by addition or subtraction.

Will the words we are about to communicate add something of value to a conversation, a topic or a deal?

Or will the words teetering on our tongue detract from meaningful dialogue?

How will our words reflect our character?

How will they be received by our audience?

Just as words ended the New Jersey teacher’s job, words can begin a career. Words can stop a business transaction or start one. Words can build upon a brand or tear it down.

As professional communicators, we should draw upon our training, our knowledge, our experience and our gut instincts. We must place our communications in the addition column. And we should guide those we represent to do the same.

In sum, words can be worth everything.

Nicole van Esselstyn is writing a blog series for Rhudy & Co. called Words Worth. This is her first installment.