Watch Your Words: Evaluating Emotional Expressions

by The Cowl Editor on October 25, 2018


Photo of Judge Robert Burns.
Judge Robert Burns, outraged at Phifer’s crime, prompted his “die in a closet” comment. Photo courtesy of Dallas Morning News.

by Joshua Chlebowski ’21

Opinion Staff

Who we are is inextricably linked to the social position that we hold, be it student, professor, law official or medical professional. Everyone fulfills  a certain position and with these roles comes the expectation of acting a certain way.

For instance, professors are expected not to use vulgarities in class, as it detracts from their professional appearance. Behavioral expectations such as this are not meant to diminish an individual’s freedom of expression, but rather to ensure their position is respected.

After Texan Charles Wayne Phifer was found guilty of capital murder last week, the judge presiding over the case sentenced him to life imprisonment without parole. It was during this sentencing that the judge provided a commentary which should come across as equally as startling as the crime itself. After sentencing Phifer, State District Judge Robert Burns chillingly told the convicted that he “should die in a locked closet.”

While the emotion expressed by Judge Burns is certainly understandable, his words do not uphold the decorum associated with his position as a judge. Judges are expected to be well-versed in the law and to deliver verdicts and sentences according to it. This does not negate their ability to have an opinion on the crimes they deal with, but the place to express such an opinion is not in the courtroom, and certainly not in front of the guilty or convicted parties.

The anger expressed through Burns’s claim makes it more difficult to see him as an impartial party. Though the sentence does not appear to have been given out of spite, the expression of ill wishes on the convicted is entirely inappropriate for this setting.

In a similar vein of teachers berating students when delivering feedback and parents wishing ill on their children in order to teach them a lesson, the judge’s words do not dignify the supposed even-keeled position he occupies. Parents, teachers, and many others are tasked with assisting in others’ developments, and by using words that condemn and lambast, they inspire anger and frustration in the listener instead of encouraging and sternly assisting when it comes to deterring negative behaviors.

While some see the use of negative language as beneficial to a learner since it conveys the disappointment and cultural displeasure with certain actions, this negativity can easily cause the listener to distance themselves and ignore the advice they are given, simply due to the way in which it was delivered.

Word choice is essential in delivering advice and assistance. When the speaker is in a position of power, it is especially important that they choose their words carefully. Everyone is entitled to have emotions and natural reactions, but it is when these emotions are expressed without a filter that issues are more likely to arise.

One can still funnel valid emotions into productive encouragement, it simply requires that one remembers their position and relationship to the listener of these words, and phrases their message accordingly.

A judge can describe the horror of a crime without informing the convicted that they should “die in a closet,” just as a teacher can effectively provide advice without insulting their students and characterizing them as ignorant.

Each and every day we engage in many conversations, both personal and professional. It is important for everyone to realistically evaluate their influence on others, using these reflections to direct their vocabulary and expressions of emotion in their interactions. Through reflection, we can come to communicate more effectively and assist each other as we continue to learn and develop, all while keeping with our respective levels of decorum.