On an oil tanker, there’s typically only one rule committed to giant letters, painted such that everyone on deck can see.  The rule is that important, in this context, and while there are certainly other rules, this one is important enough that the wall is not cluttered with the others.  It’s easy to imagine what the wall would look like with all the rules crammed together up there, and also how little attention would be paid.

If you decide to make rules you also get to decide whether you’re going to fill up the space (whether it’s wall space or listening space) with rules or choose a few, or even just one, the way the tankers do with the smoking.  And you’re likely to get results that reflect in some way the choice you make.

When I was growing up, my mom chose one:  “You may not call your brother stupid.” There were other rules, but that was the big one, and Mom made sure it felt like it was painted up there above my life in big letters.  I didn’t know why it was such a big deal at the time, but I knew she was serious about it.  As a result, I thought a lot, as a seven and eight and nine year-old, about why it might be so critical to her that I not call my brother stupid.

It’s like this with other words too, of course.  The fewer of them there are, the less easy and tempting it is to tune them out.  More can be so tempting – we’re so used to the ethic of effort that when something isn’t going the way it seems like it should, we want to do, do, do.  Talk, talk, talk.

From that we get the feeling that we’ve tried, when what we really want for our effort is to make an impression.  To do that, the fewer the words very often the better.