Talk Matters #2 - Actions not Words – does everyone think this?

Words, Words, Words, I’m so sick of words. I get words all day long, first from him now from you, is that all you blighters can do?” (Liza Doolittle).[1]

Furious at her treatment by Professor Higgins, Liza erupts when her would-be boyfriend Freddy talks of love.  She wants action, NOT words, and demands he – ‘Show me’.  Liza is not the only person who wants action not words, who assesses people by what they do rather than what they say.

If, like me, you’re an English speaker, you’re surrounded by pat phrases and familiar comments that encourage you and everyone else to see actions as ‘doing’, as meaning that something is being or has been achieved.  Take a pause - how many such phrases or sayings come to mind?  Examples off the top of my head are: ‘just a talk shop’,  ‘all hot air’,  ‘not walking the talk’… and when I ask others, they provide lots more.  The ditty that was and apparently still is offered as a response to bullying: ‘Sticks and stones may break my bones but words will never hurt me’ is a particularly clear example of the encouragement English speakers get to trivialise the power and effects of talk.

sticks and stones

Any such phrase we think of, like the ditty, is pretty trivial and if it was on its own could be easily dismissed as childish, but because they are so common and rarely challenged they provide a kind of common sense that is always with us. Phrases and sayings that dismiss talk as a poor alternative to action turn up in our conversations, even if we aren’t the ones using them.  They’re there in news reports, in ‘reality’ shows, and in the mouths of characters in soaps and dramas.  The message - that actions are doing and talk is just wagging your tongue - is part of the social air we breathe.  Giving us many opportunities to understand that actions are what counts and talk is to be seen as an alternative to acting.

That’s not true for all peoples. For example, a Māori whakataukī (traditional saying): ‘He tao rākau, karohia atu, ka hemo. He tao kī, werohia mai, tū tonu’ (The wooden spear is parried and flies wide. The spoken spear strikes home and stands.) totally contradicts ‘Sticks and stones…’.  And: ‘Tā te rangatira tana kai he kōrero’ (Talk is the food of a chief), which has no parallel in English, signals a major cultural difference that springs to life in the opening pages of Ngāpuhi Speaks.  There the fiercely independent hapū embrace kōrero as the means by which the mana of each hapū and their rangatira is sustained and enhanced while participating in projects and practices that require several hapū to work together.  In the hui rangatira (meetings of leaders) initiating and progressing such projects kōrero is understood to be vital work that ensures the necessary support for the project is achieved in ways that respect all participants.

Dr Raymond Nairn


[1] (Liza Doolittle, ‘Show me’ (song), My Fair Lady, Alan Jay Lerner & Frederick Loewe, 1956).


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