Did You Say What You Meant to Say?

Picture of a nightstand that says "one night stand" (a pun)

It’s not what we say, but the matter in which we say it. – Wiliam Carlos Williams

As sex educators, (a field often considered taboo in American society), it is very important that we are effective communicators.  A popular preliminary step in effective communication is to ensure that the material you are instructing is informed, clearly organized, functional, age-appropriate, and sufficiently academically challenging for your audience. But, there are other important factors that effect the reception of a message. The interplay of the following variables have a multitude of effects on the intended message: tone, cadence and volume of voice; word choice; facial expressions; bodily gestures; and proxemics. Awareness of these elements of communication increases our efficacy as instructors. Conversely, a lack of attention to these variables can alter the intended meaning, resulting in a distorted message. Let’s take a closer look at some of the variables that can affect communication:

Word choice refers to the selection of lingual terms to reflect a message.

Woman standing at a window, next to a man, asking him

Lewis Carroll was an English writer in the 18th Century, known for his use of “literary nonsense“. Literary nonsense is a style of writing that employs elements of nonsense against elements of sense as to counter lingual conventions, and logic in general. This style of writing engages the human desire to find meaning, perhaps where none exists. Consider this quote by Lewis Caroll:


“Then you should say what you mean,” the March Hare went on. “I do,” Alice hastily replied; “at least—at least I mean what I say—that’s the same thing, you know.” “Not the same thing a bit!” said the Hatter. “Why, you might just as well say that ‘I see what I eat’ is the same thing as ‘I eat what I see’!”

Alice talking to the Hare:

I chose this example with purpose:  To “say what you mean” and to “mean what you say,” may seem superficially equivalent. When the element of “haste” is added to Alice’s stammered reply, the reader may understand these terms to indicate nervousness from Alice. Perhaps, Alice is nervous because she realizes that she was wrong in her previous assessment. It is obvious to say that using the word “morose” may have a more powerful effect on poets than on a group of second graders. But, the element of word choice is more dimensional than that, because it also includes where we use words in position to other words. For example, it was quite powerful for Carroll to reverse the order of the words for a second time, (“see what I eat” and “eat what I see”), to dispute Alice’s claim. To [have the ability to visualize] what one eats, is different than to eat [anything or everything] one sees. Much like saying what you mean [intend], is different than meaning [having emotional investment toward] what you say. We may say something we intended, but have no emotional attachment. We may say something that has a very great meaning to us, but not have desired for it to slip out. As you can see, choosing words and their placement has powerful implications on the result of what we relay. While I find humor to be VERY valuable, when speaking about sex we must be careful of our word choice, if we want our message to come across clearly. Take the following example:

No more gay jokes.  Cum on guys.  No more vagina jokes.  Period.  My bukkake party was a disaster.  Nobody came.

Let’s be honest, for a society that speaks very little about sexuality, we are quick to hear or create a sexual pun or innuendo. I would never want to warn against being humorous, but I do want to advocate awareness for sexuality educators. Our message is important, and we must represent our field appropriately.

Tone is the emotion that we express in our vocal message. In the above example, the tone was “haste”. To say something hastily often indicates anxiety. What if Carroll had chosen the phrase “coyly and thoughtfully”? Might the reader believe that Alice was privy to knowledge that the March Hare was not? As sex educators, it is imperative that we mind our tone. The slightest leak of angst, anxiety, or dismay when speaking on sensitive topics may lead our audience to hear our emotion over our message. For instance, say you are giving a speech on abortion and in the midst, you see that quite a few people are on their cellular devices. You become agitated, and without realizing it, you begin speaking more brusquely.You audience has no idea why the change of tone occurred, but may venture to assume that you have become irritated with the topic of abortion from your tone change.

Rate, or cadence, is the rhythm or rate of speech that we choose to use. Cadence can indicate how we are feeling: slow, drawn speech may indicate that we are tired or bored with the material, whereas quick-paced speech may indicate that we are in a rush, and perhaps don’t value a topic. Rate not only indicates mood, rate can also be used as a tool. To have a moderate pace, and then incorporate a few words said more slowly can help alert our audience to a focal point. Perhaps as instructors we gauge that our audience seems a bit despondent. Varying our speaking speed, where appropriate, can add a sense of interest to the monotony of more moderate speaking styles.

Volume is the degree of loudness used. A certain degree of loudness is necessary simply for our audience to hear our message. The instructor should take into consideration factors such as room size, noise pollution, and the acoustics of a room. However, like cadence, volume can also be used as a tool of emphasis. At times it may be appropriate to abruptly and dramatically increase volume to re-engage your audience. Similarly, a sudden, and drastic decrease in volume when a crowd becomes noisy can work to reconstitute attention. As sex educators, we must sometimes speak to topics of abuse, violence, rape, etc. Sometimes lowering one’s volume can help to indicate more sensitivity toward the topic.

Facial expressions refer to the use of the muscles in the face to give non-verbal cues about emotion, or lack thereof. Facial expressions serve communication exponentially, but as with any of these variables, if used improperly, can hurt our message. For instance, say I am instructing on sexual abuse. As my eyes survey the room, I see a girl in the class wearing a t-shirt that my best friend owns. Consequently, I smirk for a fraction of a second in response to a clever quip she has made recently. The audience may see this smirk as a “leak of my true feelings”, or a micro-expression. When my audiences expectations (decoding), does not match my message (encoding), cognitive dissonance may ensue.  In turn, they may see me as cruel, and I may lose my credibility as a source from which to learn.

Gestures refer to the  bodily actions that portray non-verbal information. These can be used alone, or in conjunction with speech. Mannerisms are a more personal form of gesturing that refers to one’s particular style of motion. Gesturing can be used to animate a topic, to add emphasis or interest to certain points, or to further explicate what our words may lack. They can also be used to indicate a direction, such as when we point to avert attention to another area. Sometimes gestures are unintentional and a matter of function, such as when someone scratches their nose. As sex educators, it is important to be aware of gestures from a multi-cultural perspective. Some common American gestures have quite a different translations in other nationalities.

Proxemics refers to how we use the space between us and our audience while speaking. When speaking to an audience, it is generally acceptable to fall from 12-25 feet from your audience. This is considered “close phase”. Larger rooms may require more than 25 feet of distance (“far phase”) to provide an adequate view of yourself. Of note: proxemics can also be used for more technical purposes, such as when an instructor moves stands closely to a person in the audience that is being disruptive. This can sometimes be a non-verbal way to indicate to that person that their disruption is not appreciated. With so many elements that make an impression on our message, it can be difficult to be mindful of them all. That’s okay! We are a work in progress, as instructors. Some elements may be more useful for certain audiences, then others. It’s not imperative that we are perfect, perfection is impossible. But, I would invite instructors to keep these facets in mind and to continue to hone their craft.

For more information on Non-Verbal Communication, visit the Gamble and Gamble website!


Caroll, Lewis. (1869).  Alice In Wonderland. London: Macmillion and Co.

Gamble, T.K. & Gamble, M. (2013) Non-Verbal Communication. Interpersonal Communication:Building Connections Together. (pp.150-187). New York: Sage Publications.


2 responses to “Did You Say What You Meant to Say?

  1. I thought it was useful that you broke down different types of nonverbal communication and gave sexuality education examples for each one. However, I think most of them can be difficult for people to recognize in themselves. For instance, in the past, I’ve blatantly told people I’ve been close to that their tone came off as very harsh in particular circumstances. The response is usually total shock. So, I would be curious if you had suggestions for two things: 1. tips for self-reflection on communication styles and 2. ideas for gently pointing out how others’ styles of communication may come off. I don’t know if it’s ever appropriate to do the latter, but it seems necessary in sexuality education. But it’s definitely tricky as our communication styles come from so many places, including culture. We are fortunate to be in a program with so many opportunities to practice our skills in front of peers, in a space where it’s okay to point out things like tone and word choice!

  2. This is a topic that isn’t explored enough; we probably spend so much time arguing why we should be ABLE to teach sex ed, that we have less energy to focus on HOW to teach sex ed. During my observations for class, I noted several instances in which the teacher either misspoke, used a word that could have been taken offensively to an individual, or became flustered and just started spewing out words. Intentionality and mindfulness are always important as teachers, especially in a setting as potentially sensitive and controversial as sex education. In my experience with teens, it is extremely important to choose your words wisely- they will call you out for anything and everything. It would be a great resource to be able to compile a list of commonly used phrases/mistakes that we observe ourselves or others using, so that we can become more aware.

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