The Rockwood Files: Verbal filter failure

By Gwen Rockwood, newspaper columnist and mama of 3

Tucked deep inside the human brain is a part of the anatomy yet to be officially documented by modern science. It’s a small, round filter – invisible to even the most powerful microscope. But it’s there. And it’s vitally important for the operation of a civilized society.

This filter is designed to catch thoughts that come out of the brain but should not necessarily come out of the mouth. Some people call it a “verbal filter”.

In children, the holes in the mesh-like verbal filter are quite large – big enough to drive a Tonka truck through them. That’s one of the reasons kids are funny. Their verbal filters are still in development so they end up saying most of what they think. If you ever REALLY want to know how you look, ask a 4-year-old. You’ll get the stone cold truth every time.

As kids get older, the holes in their verbal filters begin to tighten up, partly because their brains are maturing and partly because their mothers pinch their arms every time they say something they shouldn’t. Hard pinching has been shown to speed up the verbal filter’s maturation rate, you see.

The functioning of a verbal filter is a delicate balance. If your filter is too strict, people might perceive you as being guarded or difficult to get to know. If your filter has large, gaping holes in it, you’re sure to end up digging your foot out of your own mouth on more than one occasion.

In some rare cases, the verbal filter might be missing altogether. I’ve often wondered if my dad was born without a filter. When he opens his mouth, none of us have the slightest idea what might come flying out of it. Sometimes I think he does it on purpose just to keep us on our toes, and other times I think his filter may have disintegrated sometime in the early 1960s.

One time, when he was a deacon and speaking to our church congregation at the pulpit, he pointed to a rash on his forehead, which he’d gotten after working around some poison oak. “You see this rash on my head? Don’t pay any attention to it. I think some aliens came down and peed on me last night.”

My mother, whose verbal filter is quite a bit more conservative, was horrified that he had somehow managed to talk about aliens and urine in the same sentence – in the middle of church, no less. She later told me that that was the day she began fantasizing about duct taping his mouth shut.

Here are a few other true examples of “filter failure”:

  1. My husband once told his longtime friend about his company’s massive layoffs, to which his friend immediately asked: “Why do you think they kept you around?”
  2. Upon driving up to our new house with a friend, she said “Oh, this is nice. But don’t you wish this house next to yours had been for sale? It’s gorgeous.”
  3. We once showed an acquaintance our newly remodeled kitchen, which she loved, but then she followed it up with this gem: “This kitchen looks so much better! The old kitchen was depressing. No wonder the house didn’t sell.”

Keep in mind that, in all of these examples, the people who did the talking are kind, intelligent people who would never purposefully say something to offend. They were just victims of a malfunctioning verbal filter that was too sluggish to catch their thoughts before they escaped out of their mouths.

It happens to the best of us.

Gwen Rockwood is a mom to three great kids, wife to one cool guy, a newspaper columnist and co-owner of To read previously published installments of The Rockwood Files, click here.