It was just a word: "jump." But it was the wrong one for rush-hour motorists in Seattle to shout at a distraught woman poised to commit suicide by leaping off a bridge.
In the ugly incident last week, the woman did jump. She survived the fall, but the taunting of motorists sitting in backed-up traffic unleashed a soul-searching that went far beyond Seattle.
That event is an extreme example, but social critics say it is indicative of an increasingly caustic edge in American discourse. From city streets to offices to TV shows, it's become practically an everyday occurrence to hear nasty repartees, verbal bullying, and a close cousin of such language: gossip.
Indeed, discourse - public and private - has grown harsh enough to have spurred a civility backlash. From Cleveland to St. Louis to Miami, grass-roots movements have started urging people to stop and think about the impact of their words. Courses in ethical speech and behavior are popping up at universities and on the Internet. A whole industry has grown up around teaching corporations to cope with hostile language and bullying by the boss or co-workers.
And this week in Washington, a group of religious leaders, celebrities, and politicians will launch a national campaign called WordsCanHeal.org. Its goal is to remind people of the adage, if you have nothing good to say, it's better to say nothing at all.
"We have a problem here. We live in this age of information where words have become so powerful, even more powerful than bullets," says Rabbi Chaim Feld, a Cleveland teacher of ethical speech who helped spark the national movement.
Several years ago, Mr. Feld observed that when he taught others to more careful in their use of language, their relationships with family members and employers improved. So he and a colleague decided to launch a local radio and television campaign in Cleveland, a kind of pilot program, reminding people that gossip and nasty words can hurt. It was originally targeted at the Jewish community, but they soon found the message resonated much further.
"People were deeply, deeply interested," says Rabbi Irwin Katsof, co-executive director with Feld of WordsCanHeal.org. "We got more calls from outside of the Jewish community than in it."
To gauge the extent of the mean-speaking phenomenon, they commissioned a national poll whose findings surprised them, particularly about gossip. Between 70 and 80 percent of Americans say that gossip is a problem in the workplace, schools, politics, and the media.
"It's extremely serious from a business perspective. It creates a huge loss of money and confidentiality," says Karlin Sloan, president of the Propeller Group in New York, which specializes in workplace behavior. "From a people perspective, it's just really, really hurtful to everyone involved."
Overall, the consensus among many social critics is that gossip is an indication of a lack of emotional intelligence that appears to be deepening in American society.
"One of the core competencies of emotional intelligence involves self-awareness and the capacity to empathize with other human beings," says Jeremy Robinson, a psychoanalyst who heads Robinson Executive Coach in New York, a corporate consulting service. "A gossipy, mean-spirited world is not a world where people are empathizing with each other."
Taken a step further, he says, it is potentially very destructive. "The corollary is that if everybody gets gossiped about or thought unfairly about, then it's every man or woman for themselves," he says. "There's no community, no bonds, no trust, nothing that goes deep." One result: Angry motorists vent their frustrations by urging another to take her life.
But some skeptics doubt hostile speech and gossip could ever be stopped. One British expert in organizational behavior contends that gossip is an animal behavior, a primitive survival skill. Others contend it's just a part of human nature. But Sloan sees a difference between malicious gossip and sharing productive information, which is an important part of keeping communities vital.
"That can be exciting. You can find out good things that you want to congratulate people about," she says. "But when it turns to indirect criticism, something that you can't say to another's face, that's when it gets destructive."
The founders of WordsCanHeal.org have heard skepticism about whether their campaign can work. They're not daunted.
"There was a time in America not so long ago that people thought slavery was normal, part of human nature," says Katsof. "Then the American people woke up and said, 'This is wrong. We can and we must do better.' Fifty-one million Americans are hurt by gossip every week. Certainly we should do something about that."