Whenever I was particularly surly toward my parents as an adolescent, my mother with her mild southern drawl that you can only catch if you have lived north of the Mason-Dixon line, would resort to saying something like “you’ll catch more flies with honey than you will with that vinegar”. Nevertheless because I am who I am, I’ve heard this old adage about a million times from my sweet mom. I don’t know if this happens to you, but I’ve reached the age now where my mother’s voice is my inner voice. This, of course, means I hear this phrase often before I even utter a word. I’m embarrassed to confess that since I still have days where I live out my adolescent rebellion, I’ve conducted my own study of whether or not this maxim is true as far as catching fruit flies that swarm old bananas that my children neglect. And I can tell you after a non-scientific study, that in the art of catching fruit flies, honey nor vinegar can complete with a nice glass of cabernet sauvignon.
I get it though. Be nice and people may like you. Be kind and win friends. Gentle words may influence someone, and I suppose those things are all true. I work in conflict resolution and communications, and believe me, the way you spin things matter to the hearer. The adage may be a loosely summarized Proverb after all.
“Kind words are like honey–sweet to the soul and healthy for the body.”Proverbs 16:24
“A gentle answer turns away wrath, but hard words stir up anger.”Proverbs 15:1
Can you feel a but coming?
But, kindness is subjective. Is honesty kind? There are a lot of honest words that don’t go down as smooth as the golden bee slime. Some honest words sting and feel a lot more like astringent… like vinegar. I find it interesting that vinegar is a disinfectant and an antibacterial. It cleans windows and mirrors and has been used for thousands of years for medicinal cleaning. It may not taste as sweet and your teeth may buzz, but vinegar is equal in usefulness as honey. So if honey is the equivalent of kind words, then vinegar may just be honesty. There are a few proverbs regarding honest words as well.
“Wounds from a friend can be trusted, but an enemy multiplies kisses.”Proverbs 27: 6
“Whoever loves discipline loves knowledge, but whoever hates correction is stupid.”Proverbs 12:1
I don’t know if you have experienced this, but especially in our current cultural context, honesty is difficult; especially if you are sharing your perspective with someone whom you know may disagree. I want to suggest that vinegar you perceive spewing from someone’s mouth, may suggest one of three things:
1) Pain. Unhealed wounds have a tendency to explode from our mouths and spray anyone in spitting distance. People in physical pain can be some of the meanest people on the planet. People in emotional pain can cut your heart to pieces.
2) Expertise. There are people who communicate assertively and directly who do not waste time with niceties and ego massaging. They will speak up and out exerting their expertise and experience. Expertise doesn’t always come from academia.
3) Unheard. If you ignore someone long enough, one of two things happens. They get louder and more angry or they give up and walk. A large portion of our communities feel unheard of late. Their noise has purpose.
It is almost safer to not say anything at all, and, guess what, there is a Proverb for you too.
“It is foolish to belittle a neighbor; a person with good sense remains silent.”Proverbs 11:12
But before you make silence your communication go-to, I want you to consider that silence is often an avoidance strategy made by people, often fearful, who simply don’t want to take the time to sort through difficult conversations and be forced to feel the ping of vinegar on their tongue much less burn their eyes.
On the other hand, silence in the presence of those in pain, or those who have experience to share, or those who desperately need to be heard is healthy and helpful. Scripture is consistent in warning believers about the danger of too many words and how the tongue can damage relationships.
So where does this leave us?
What I keep coming back to is this: Listen to understand not to respond. Speak only after you think about what you are going to say. And be gently honest always. If the motive is to be an encouragement and benefit others, then saturate the conversation with honey! If the motive is to generate friends, save face, or manipulate, stop in your tracks. If you see feel a pull to share something from your experience or to bring someone closer to Jesus, speak gently. Use vinegar sparingly and attempt to be self-aware enough to be careful in it’s application.
I love words. Words have meaning and those meanings matter to the hearer. Words are powerful; they can heal and destroy. I love that Jesus is known as The Word and though he didn’t always choose to speak, he did assertively and often. Take heart, not everyone loved the words Jesus spoke because they were just not sweet enough.
“A person’s words can be life-giving water; words of true wisdom are as refreshing as a bubbling brook.”Proverbs 18:4
“Words satisfy the soul as food satisfies the stomach; the right words on a person’s lips bring satisfaction.”Proverbs 18:20