Return to Wendell Johnson Memorial Home Page

THE LANGUAGE OF RESPONSIBILITY

WENDELL JOHNSON*

Reprinted from ETC: A Review of General Semantics, Vol. xix, No. 1, May 1962, p. 76. The note on his name in that version provides some of the history of the piece:

*Professor of Speech Pathology and Psychology, University of Iowa, Iowa City; author of People in Quandaries (1946), Your Most Enchanted Listener (1956), Stuttering and What You Can Do About It (1961), etc.; past president of ISGS [Internation Society for General Semantics, publisher of ETC.] Dr. Johnson's most recent contribution to ETC., "Some Effects of a Course in General Semantics," appeared in the October 1961 issue. The present article was delivered as the commencement address at the University of Iowa, August 9, 1961, and is reprinted by permission from the University of Iowa Extension Bulletin (November 1, 1961).


Since the night I stood here thirty years ago to receive my own doctoral degree I have enjoyed a wonderful privilege. Along with millions of other people throughout the world, I shall always be deeply grateful to the University of Iowa for pioneering the scientific study of stuttering and other speech disorders. I came to Iowa as a stuttering Kansas farm boy as soon as my family heard of the research program that was being started here, and I arrived in 1926 just in time to serve as a subject in the first experiments to be undertaken in the new speech pathology laboratory. That turned out to be the beginning of a long apprenticeship as a "professional white rat," which led to my becoming a specialist in my own distress -- and for me a happier choice of life work I cannot imagine.

I find it hard to believe that there could be anything more fascinating than the problem called stuttering. Caught up within it are practically all of the elements of life, swirled into an intriguing snarl, as challenging as a tangled fish line. Working with this and related problems -- or, rather, with persons involved in these problems -- I have made some observations about people that I would like to share with you during the next few moments that we are to spend together.



What has impressed me most about people, as I have been privileged to know them, is their longing to be understood -- and to be understanding. Almost everyone seems to mean well, nearly always. Stuttering to people for half a century has left me with the deep conviction that they are terribly kind. When they do not appear to mean well, to be kind and understanding, they have themselves, it seems to me, an aching need to be understood -- and most especially they need the maturity and serenity that would enable them to be understanding of themselves.

Now, what I sense in working with people in the speech clinic is that as they "get better," as they learn and improve and show more understanding of themselves and of others, they seem to develop a more and more substantial sense of responsibility. One of my old teachers, the psychiatrist Dr. John Dorsey, once put it this way: he said that as a person grows up he progresses through three stages. First he says, "Please help me." Then he says, "I can take care of myself." Finally he says, "Please let me help you."

There is something, I think, extremely fundamental about the relationship between one's sense of responsibility and one's capacity for being understanding -- and, especially, for feeling understood. This relationship has to do in a peculiarly crucial way, I feel, with what might be thought of as "the language of responsibility."

So -- what does it mean to understand someone, and to be understood by some other person? You talk with your children. What does it mean to say that you understand what your child says to you, or that he understands what you say to him, or that there is understanding between the two of you? Working in a clinic trying to help people, I have had building up in me over the years a stronger and stronger feeling that we need much more understanding in the world. I've known ever so many mothers and fathers who feel, in some instances quite desperately, that they don't understand their children. Husbands and wives, children and parents, students and teachers often seem to be reaching toward each other across a great gulf. We don't understand the Russians, and they don't understand us. The rich people don't understand the poor people, and vice versa. "Labor" doesn't understand management," and something seems to have come between the scientists and the people who are not sure just what the scientists are up to. Well -- why don't we understand each other more fully than we do?

One reason, of course, is that no two of us are exactly the same. For many years I have been trying to help students who want to go into speech pathology understand persons who have disorders of speech. To me there is a baffling fascination in trying to tell the students who speak normally how to be understanding of the stutterers in the speech clinic. I'm terribly impressed with how hard they try, and I am just as much impressed by the difficulty they seem to have in achieving what they can feel within themselves to be a good understanding of what it must be like to be a stutterer. And then I think of the kinds of persons I don't understand very well myself. Among them, of course, are the very students I have just been talking about. They speak normally, you see, and I must confess that although I feel I know what it is like to be a person who speaks "pretty much all right," because I think I speak quite fluently myself now most of the time, I simply do not know what it would be like to talk with absolutely no concern whatever about being able to get started and keep going. It is just as hard for a stutterer to understand what it is like to be a normal speaker as it is for a normal speaker to understand that a stutterer doesn't understand that.

I am sure each one of you can match this sort of experience in trying to get another person's point of view. Many a grandfather, who loves to tend his garden and walk now and then to the pond to fish or to the feed store to pass the time of day with his old cronies, shakes his head in bafflement when his grandson insists that he has to have a car -- to drive to college and to Ft. Lauderdale, and to Los Angeles to visit his roommate, and a block to the drive- in to get a hamburger. Even I can remember when horses were, at least in our little Kansas valley, the most common means of transportation, and so I find it difficult to catch on to what my twelve-year-old friends are telling me these days about the urgency of traveling faster than the speed of sound.

Wrapped up in these words I've been saying is a kernel of conviction: The most important thing to understand, I think, is that there is a fundamental limitation to our ability to understand. The kindest people, the ones who are nicest to be around, are those who don't presume to understand completely our most intimate and personal feelings. In their lack of presumptuousness we sense the basic respect they feel for us. We all know how easy it is to get too wordy in trying to console a friend in sadness. Silence often says so much more than words ever could at such times, and what our silence acknowledges is in part, of course, the other person's inescapable aloneness.

The understanding we cannot give others we can hardly expect of them. I remember sitting one day in a hotel lobby somewhere with Earl Schenck Miers, one of the many great human beings I have come to know in the course of my work with so-called handicapped persons. He is a tall shaggy-headed fellow with steady brown eyes and unsteady movements, who accommodates himself with patience and dignity to the incoordinations of cerebral palsy. He is also a very fine editor and the author of several excellent books. We were talking with a man who was sitting in a wheelchair between us, a man whose legs had been amputated. With his head bobbing about a bit from the cerebral palsy, Earl Miers looked earnestly at the man in the wheelchair and said, "You know, you can't expect people to know just what to do when they first see you." And after a little while he went on to say. "What those of us," and he smiled, "those of us who are called handicapped have to learn to do is to put people at ease when we meet them. It is our responsibility to try to understand them as best we can.

Earl Miers was speaking to every one of us, not just those who are called, often rather unreflectively, "the handicapped." We can't realistically expect to be understood very completely by others who can't know from personal experience what it's like to be like we are. That's asking too much of people, and so it can only lead to disappointment.

Many of the people I see and come to know in the clinic have never come to terms with this limitation. They have never accepted themselves, because they have never accepted their own inescapable aloneness. Even when others understand them as well as they could be expected to, they still feel that they are not understood. They are tortured by what they can never say and by wanting to hear what no one else can ever say to them. There is a silent level of understanding or awareness. This is what you "feel in your bones." It is the knowing that is ache and throb and tingle. It is what you are left with after you've told someone else all you can about what you feel or know. And if you expect others to understand this, then you can only feel that you are not understood by them, and the reason is very simple: they cannot feel in your bones. And you cannot feel in theirs. There is a loneliness that is known by everyone. To understand this is, by so much, to know serenity.

To understand this is to be accepting of the irrevocable changes that come with growing up and with growing older -- especially the changes in your children as they grow up, and in your parents as they grow older. We can in no way be more wise, it seems to me, than in our appreciation of the differences between youth and age. They may never be wholly understood, but they can be profoundly appreciated. You have come, by a ziggity-zaggity path, to where you are tonight from the time when you almost always needed your parents, or someone else, to help you, and for your parents this is commencement too, because more than ever before they face the need to understand that, with all your gratitude, you want now to take care of yourselves. But change, which is nearly all we can be sure of in this life, is hardly ever very neat, of course, and, for all our rituals and rites, most transitions take a long time, if indeed they are ever completed. So, while we are mostly wanting to take care of ourselves we do need help sometimes, and one of the most wonderful lessons we have to learn is that there are times when others help us most by letting us help them -- and when we help others by letting them help us.

One of the very most important observations that I have been privileged to make of people is that they differ tremendously in helpability. It seems to me that one of the most distinguishing marks of the mature person is that he seeks the criticism and the help he needs, and he appreciates them and uses them well. To be helped you must be helpable. To be taught you must be teachable. We help our children most of all, it seems to me, by teaching them to be helpable -- and we do this best, as we do most teaching best, by personal example. You are most helpable, teachable, when you learn to listen well and face reality and talk clearly and responsibly about facts at hand. This means, too, of course, that you are most helpful to others when you listen well to them, in ways that encourage them to talk more earnestly about themselves and about other people and their relationships with them, and more realistically about the situations with which they are concerned.

When you listen to understand you listen without preconceptions. You listen without irritation or anger. You listen without strong prejudice. You keep your own need to be understood from coming between you and the other person you are trying to understand. You listen not to refute and not to persuade, but only to hear the speaker out, to understand just as well as you possibly can what he is trying to say. This sort of listening is extremely rare, of course, I believe deeply that the world would be better if there were more of it. The work I do in the clinic has left me, as I have said, with the profound conviction that we need much more understanding in the world, and I do not know of any more direct way to better understanding than that of better listening. The art of listening is the better part of the art of helping people in the sort of clinic with which I am familiar, and I know of no reason to doubt that it is the better part of helping people anywhere.

Incidentally, for a long while I have suspected that the best diets are to be found in hospitals and are eaten by the sick, the best teaching methods are to be found in special schools for the mentally retarded, and the best philosophies of living and principles of personal relationships are to be found in clinics for the distressed and maladjusted and in hospitals for the mentally ill. I think it is high time that these diets and teaching methods and these philosophies and principles of sane and effective living were made available to everybody. With all the good things to be had these days in hospitals, clinics, and rehabilitation centers, it is coming to be a positive disadvantage not to be sick, handicapped, or maladjusted. To be normal, to have nothing wrong with you, is to be neglected!

Seriously, we do have much to learn from what have come to be called the helping professions about being helpful to our children and to our parents, to those who work for us and those for whom we work, to those who are with us and those who are against us. By the helping professions I mean, besides my own field of speech pathology and audiology, the professions of medicine, clinical psychology and social work, nursing and rehabilitation, teaching and law, and all other counseling and professional services. In these helping pro- fessions -- as, indeed, in the sciences also -- it is so well known that it is taken for granted and seldom said that it is essential to examine the facts thoroughly, report them accurately, and to base recommendations and courses of action upon the findings objectively evaluated. That is essentially how you help people who come seeking help for problems of body or soul that they find distressful, and when you have reached the stage of maturity at which you not only want to take care of yourself but to help others, too, that is how you can be helpful to other people, whoever they may be and wherever you may find them. That is also how anyone else can best help you and how you can take care of yourself.

This approach to problems, which is so thoroughly taken for granted by most research scientists and clinical counselors, amounts to a basic or general "method of understanding." It is nothing more or less than a pattern of mature behavior that can be cultivated by anyone. It is more suitable in some situations than in others, but it is practically never wholly inappropriate or ineffective. I observe it in the clinic as the way in which people behave more and more as they progress in dealing with their problems. And perhaps because I work in a clinic where speech and language problems are a major concern, I am particularly sensitive to the importance of the kind of language that goes with this "method of understanding."

People in distress or confusion have difficulty as a rule making clear to others, and to themselves as well, what their problems are. In part, this is because they use a vague language, speaking in generalities and, often for reasons that are deeply revealing, leaving out important details. Also, they have an essentially irresponsible way of mixing fact and opinion, of confusing is with "looks like," of talking about what might happen as though it most certainly would happen, or had already come to pass. Their statements tend to be too pat, to be about a world that is black and white, with none of the grays of which the wise and mature are so keenly aware. They do not always talk as though they recognize the necessity -- or enjoy the discipline -- of basing conclusions on good evidence. They are inclined to issue -- and to accept -- the verbal equivalents of bad checks. They do not understand themselves or their problems very well partly, at least, because they do not try very hard to find out what the crucial facts are. They do not talk clearly about the facts they do observe. They do not make good use of the information they have in trying to understand their problems and in figuring out what, if anything, to do about them.

As people become more mature they use language more and more responsibly to report accurately what they learn when they listen well and in all other ways observe carefully the facts that are of interest and concern to them. They demonstrate the language of responsibility in describing clearly and in detail what they themselves do and what others do that needs to be understood. They speak the language of who, when, where, what, and then what, and of the various possible whys, the language of honest and full report and of disciplined explanation -- of thoughtful understanding.

With the serenity that comes with self-acceptance, and the maturity reflected in the language of responsibility, you can feel prepared to meet the problems that lie ahead with a heartening capacity for understanding. You are able, then, to seek and make good use of the help you may need, but mostly you will be able to take care of yourself, when you are not helping others -- to be more understanding and to feel understood.

You go, I realize all too well, into a future that promises to become increasingly bewildering because of the mounting problems of urbanization, automation, population, crime, delinquency, nationalism, war and destruction, nuclear energy, radioactive fallout, outer space, and all the other items in our expanding lexicon of tension and distress. You go, inevitably, to wrestle the problems of the world as well as your own perplexities. Which of these you will find the more enormous is not to be easily predicted. Your own personal problems will, I am quite sure, matter more to you from day to day and from moment to moment, and that is why I have talked with you as I have. And I have talked with you as I have because I agree with Confucius in the conviction that in order to govern the state wisely you must know first how to govern the family, and in order to do well by your family you must first be understanding of yourself.


Return to Wendell Johnson Memorial Home Page