Actions don’t speak louder than words

“Actions speak louder than words” is an expression that is so commonly used, its truth also seems self-evident. We might paraphrase it to mean something like this: if you claim to have one particular belief, yet act in a manner that contradicts that purported belief, then your actions will reveal that the belief was only a farce. I accept this use of the phrase; there is no sense in saying one thing, only to show in your actions that you did not mean what you said. 

This specific use of the expression, I argue, represents the whole of its scope; applied in other contexts, it is not true. There are two reasons for this, the first dealing with the way the aphorism is worded. To say that actions “speak” may be figuratively meaningful, but I think the verb mischaracterizes what it means to act in a significant way. Actions are events, perhaps carried out primarily by one agent but likely influenced by a number of contextual factors. Actions occur in the real world: a person has an intended result, but the result is not always achieved. There is great difficulty in bringing one’s conceptual convictions to fruition in reality, even if the actor’s intentions are entirely wholesome. Does this mean we can rightfully assume that one who fails to act in accordance with their intent did not actually have that intention? I say no; the world is simply flawed. To successfully act out one’s plans or aspirations is an ideal, sure, but there are far too many reasons this may not work. 

For example, imagine that you are going through a particularly stressful time in your life. Since you are mentally bogged down with whatever it is you are dealing with, you have hardly looked at a calendar for weeks. You realize your best friend’s birthday was yesterday, and you feel absolutely awful immediately. You call your best friend to apologize, explaining the stresses you are facing and offering to take them out that weekend for dinner and drinks to celebrate. 

Your best friend has every right to feel sad or angry that you “forgot” their birthday. That does not mean, however, that your act of forgetting is indicative of your actual apathy toward your friend; it just means that you forgot something. Life is hard and messy. To say that you do not really care about your friend would be a gross misrepresentation of the reality of the situation. The words you tell your friend — that you are sorry, that you care, that you want to make it up to them — are honest to your feelings, even if actions seemed to indicate otherwise.

One might object that if you really cared, then you would never have forgotten their birthday in the first place, but who among us can honestly say that they have never been so sucked into your own world, dealing with your own trials and tribulations, and subsequently done something as innocent as forgetting the date? Perhaps some people are perfect angels with steel trap memories, but I know I am not, and I do not think that my inability to deal with life’s challenges without letting some events slip through the cracks in my memory says anything meaningful about who I am as a friend.

I give the above example in order to show that people are flawed, and this leads to errors in matching words and actions. The expression under question also proves untruthful in cases not relating to exceptional stress or circumstantial shortcoming, for reasons related to my personal gripe with referring to actions as words at all. 

Actions can be described as events, decisions, occurrences or whatever else you may prefer; most importantly, they occur in the real world and are thus irreducible to the confines of the 26 letters of the English language. Think about how many words there are for even simple actions, like talking: we’ve got “speak,” “profess,” “note,” “remark,” “state,” “tell,” “declare” and so on for nearly forever. 

Although these words are all united under the umbrella of “synonym,” they each have their own associations. The act of selecting words to express or describe a particular action is a highly subjective and unscientific thing, yet communicating with others demands that we consider the great weight of connotation in our curation process, at least if we would like to be understood. Finding the right words is very difficult; there is no way around that, and relative success or failure to express oneself cannot rightfully be accredited only to the speaker. Rather, the speaker and the hearer share responsibility to conduct a productive dialogue. 

How could actions speak “louder” than words, when the mere act of converting actions into concepts or descriptions requires selection from such a vast array of words? There are about a million ways to tell someone you care about them, and the one you choose may not be interpreted to mean what you meant. 

Communication is tough; the act of conveying subjective emotional understandings of what happens in the world opens up great potential for one’s meaning to get lost in translation. We do things, and we talk about the things we do, but these two practices are conceptually distinct for good reason. Leave speaking to speech, and acting to actions, and we could have a much simpler picture of the connection between the two.