An ‘apt’ word is a word that is appropriate, fitting, proper, and right for a given situation. Some people constantly complain of ‘putting their foot in their mouth,’ or ‘always saying the wrong thing.’ We have all said something, and then a moment later thought, “I wish I had those words back.” I am trying to spare us such moments. I'm trying to keep our feet on the ground, out of our mouths.
The Four “Rights” Of Apt Words
Aptness involves saying the ‘right thing,’ to ‘the right person,’ in ‘the right place,’ and at ‘the right time.’
1. The Right Thing
In saying that we should strive to say ‘the right thing,’ I am assuming that not everything is ‘right’ to say. The truism is true: There are some things better left unsaid – some thoughts we would be wise not to give vent to.
2. The Right Person/People
We have to consider who we are speaking to, and be considerate of the particular setting we are in. People often say, ‘consider the source,’ but hardly anyone says, ‘consider the audience.’ In speaking aptly, we need to consider the audience.
In public speaking this is especially important. Certain audiences are offended by certain words and phrases. Ross Perot saying, “you people,” at an NAACP conference during the 1992 Presidential race is a classic example of breaking this rule. While it may be appropriate to refer to some audiences as ‘you people,’ it wasn’t in that setting. It came across as derogatory.
Tim Keller (a pastor in
) once remarked that he wouldn’t likely ever use use an illustration from football in a sermon to his congregation. Why not? Most of the people he preaches to don’t watch football. This is a good example of ‘considering the audience.’ New York
This principle also holds true on social occasions, and in private conversations. We need to be sensitive to the fact that not everyone sees the world as we do, likes the same things we do, and has the same experience as us. If we want to speak aptly, we need to consider the particular person/persons we are speaking with.
The right place = the right setting, environment.
There are some things that should not be said in public settings. For example, the boss who is in the habit of correcting employees in front their peers is not speaking aptly. It would be more ‘apt’ to take these people aside, and correct them privately. The parent who disciplines their child in the supermarket is also acting contrary to the principle of aptness. Such discipline will very likely cause extreme embarrasment for the child, and bitterness.
On this point of saying private things publically, much we find on the internet is not so ‘apt.’ Posting a note on Facebook about a fight with a friend is not apt, or wise. That should be discussed in person, out of the public eye. The internet is also not the best place to share your ‘heart’ with the world. Why not? Once a word is in cyberspace just about anybody can read it, including people we don’t want to read it. Also, such intimate details may come back to haunt us. If you share the details of a particular romance on the internet this week when you are ‘in love,’ you may come to regret it when you are ‘out of love.’ Do you want your future husband coming across a 5 year old profession of ‘undying love’ for the guy you met in freshman English?
The idea of taking care where/when we say sensitive things is the virtue of discretion. Discretion has to do with keeping things that should be secret, secret.
Also, when considering the right ‘place,’ we need to take account of the occasion. A dinner party, when people are eating, is probably not the best place to tell the gory story of your emergency surgery. A funeral is probably not the right place to tell the hilarious story of how you learned to surf last summer.
As GK Chesterton phrased it in his autobiography, “A gentleman is never rude – except on purpose.”
4. The Right Time
The right place is connected to the right time, and sometimes they are inseperable. Still, there is an important distinction. The right time has to do with ‘timing,’ while the right place has to do with ‘setting.’
Sometimes we know the right thing to say, and we are in an appropriate place to say it, but we still need to wait on the right time to say it.
For example, if you find yourself in a painful disagreement with a friend it is probably not ‘apt’ to try and talk things out while emotions are still high, and feelings still sensitive. You know you need to say certain things, but it might be wiser to wait an hour or two until things have calmed down. In other words, you need to wait for the right time.
Then again, some things need to be said right now, and it might be inappropriate to wait for another occasion.
We should, then, see time as it relates to speech/writing as divided up into opportunities. Some ‘times’ are ideal opportunities to say certain things. Once that time comes, we should take advantage of the opportunity.
Final Word on Aptness
The best way to make sure that you and I say the apt thing is THINKING. Take that word out of your mouth, examine it, hold it up to the sun, and then and only then, free it into the world.