Four-ish Letter Words

Good, nice, mean, cool, fine, like, sure, okay, alright, awesome, whatever, yeah, super, ace, great, tight

    • Someone at work has been bothering you all week and when he finally comes and asks you what’s wrong you say “you’re not being very nice. You’ve been mean to me all week.” Or, for a more detailed response “You were a jerk when I asked you about coffee yesterday and it took you forever to get me that report I needed. It’s your fault I was here until midnight. But you know what, it’s done, it’s fine, don’t worry about it.” (throws up hands and walks away)
    • When a stranger at the post office asks how you’re doing, you say “fine” even though you’re late for a presentation at work because your alarm didn’t go off and you’ve lost the disk with the presentation on it. 
    • When your aunt Hilda gives you a vomit-green-colored sweater with florescent pink worms embroidered on the front you say “gee, thank you, it’s so nice, I like it.”

Nice, good, bad, and mean are very general indicators of mood. If someone tells me they are having a good day, I get the impression that nothing too earth shatteringly terrible has happened, but I don’t know how they’re feeling. The words describe an emotion, but not a strong or detailed one.

The four(ish) letter words listed at the top are widely used in daily conversation. The words themselves aren’t the problem; they just don’t mean much of anything. Describe nice.  What does fine mean? For the sake of real, meaningful conversations, the words have very little substance. Often, they’re what you say if you can’t think of anything, or are not in touch with the experience you are really having. 

There are exceptions to this, such as when a four-ish letter word may be understood to mean more, kind of like short-hand. When asked by a friend if you would like to go grab a coffee, “sure” is probably well understood by both parties to mean something along the lines of “I would love to spend some time reconnecting with you over coffee.” Around a well established scenario and individual, explanation may not be necessary and a four-ish letter word totally appropriate.  Both people are certain and clear about the more detailed meanings. The better people know one another (such as with close, long-term relationships), the more shorthand words are used and fully understood. New situations, or uncovered ground, combined with four-ish letter words are slippery territory. Old territory is valuable to cover again regularly as well; for example, love may be understood by lovers, yet more descriptive feelings will likely get a deeper response . . . so you know how you felt is felt by the other – love truly communicated.  

What can we say instead of ____? When is it important?

It depends on the situation. By describing feelings, people can feel obligated to help a difficult situation and there is the potential for a long discussion. If you’re talking to the cashier at the grocery store, it is likely not the time, place or person you want to be discussing your frustrations with. If you’re having a serious conversation with a co-worker, using little to none of the four-ish letter words would be appropriate. 

At the post office, there’s nothing wrong with saying “I’m a little stressed right now.” It is possible to be polite but truthful without the other person feeling like a long discussion of your problems is necessary. Delivery makes a big difference in outcome.

The co-worker gets no information on how their actions are affecting the other person from “you’re not being very nice. You’ve been mean to me all week.” What does nice or mean actually signify? What does that behavior look like? Even with the longer explanation, what actions makes him a jerk? What are the chances the person is leaving that conversation feeling resolved, even though they say everything is “fine”? What needs have not been met? What request is being made? Where is the curiosity for the others point of view? NVC techniques come into play to make this a meaningful and helpful conversation.

Aunt Hilda’s sweater: “Aunt Hilda, thank you for caring about me enough to take the time to make this. I can tell by all the detail, including the matching pink worm buttons, that you care about me a lot.” Follow the guidelines of NVC gratitude and educational praise. Be specific. Pick out specific examples of things you appreciated or enjoyed. 

A common attempt to avoid four-ish letter words

In an attempt to circumvent the four-ish letter words, “appreciate” and “happy” often get subbed in. Both can be useful and appropriate, but care needs to be taken that they are not overused. Happy can be another four-ish letter word. Without an explanation of what about the person or situation makes you feel that way, it doesn’t provide any feedback.  Catching longer four-ish letter words is a skill that develops over time.

Thank you

Thank you is a form of praise. A vague, non-described thank you is like a locked treasure chest. There is something great inside, but it is the details that unlock it.  If you want to thank someone from the heart, the same guidelines for NVC gratitude and perhaps educational praise are to be followed. Tell them exactly what you enjoyed. Own up to the feeling and emotion that whatever they did conveyed. You can appreciate the work Aunt Hilda put into the sweater and the kind thoughts it conveyed while not sharing her sense of style. See the NVC gratitude page for more information on forming these responses.

The depth of the thank you will vary depending on the situation. Thanking someone for handing you something you dropped or giving you a receipt at a store doesn’t require any detail. Thanking your waitress at a restaurant can be as short as “thanks, the service was really quick today,” or “thanks for your meal suggestions, I really enjoyed the flavors and spice in the entrée you recommended.” The stronger the connection and impact desired, the more detail will enable a meaningful connection and understanding.

Generic Names

The use of generic names (bud, buddy, ladies, guys, baby) for an individual or group can also take away the impact and intention behind statements. Think about what is more personal and meaningful, someone using your name or someone using a generic name they call everyone they speak to. Those generic names are often the ones we use when we can’t remember someone’s name (see the icebreaker section of the manual for games to learn names while walking to a clinic area) – “hey bud, it’s your turn to climb the climbing wall!” This is not to say that those generic names don’t have a place. Teaching a clinic of ten mixed campers, you’re likely not going to want to call each of them by name, but in having a level two conversation with a camper, using the camper’s name is going to show more care and attention than calling them buddy.

Even in larger group situations, defining the group in some way such as “Pine 1, let’s head to the cabin” or “Archery folks, let’s go” is both going to be clearer, especially in mixed company with other cabins or clinic groups in the area, and encourage more group cohesion. For a cabin group, coming up with a nickname or code name, can be a fun way to address this as well as assisting with group cohesion and bonding.

A caveat involves pet names for people and is similar to the mention above about well-established scenarios and individuals.  A nickname or term of endearment has meaning to the people involved, even if it sounds like a generic name to someone else.  A father calling his daughter ‘sweetheart,’ a partner saying ‘honey’ when it has been established as a term of endearment between them, likely carries much intention and power between those people.

  • When gathering your clinic, make some notes about the clothing the camper is wearing on your attendance slip.  Then, you can reference that to remember names.  Another way is to run a quick “clinic introduction” and go around the circle, everyone saying their name.  Yet another way to get names, especially if you forget, is to call a name on your slip as campers are walking in front of or away from you; see who turns around.

There are likely numerous exceptions, and as with all the four-ish letter words, this document is not trying to say that the use of these words is inappropriate in all occasions.  Instead, its purpose is to request thought, intention and clarity in the words we put out to the campers, the community, and the world at large.

Examples from a Camp setting of four-ish letter words, educational praise, and/or judgmental praise

Four-ish letter or judgmental praise


You’re doing great!!

I was delighted to see how you switched tactics when that last hold (on the climbing wall) didn’t work for you. 

The meal was perfect!

I loved the curry flavor in the main dish and the addition of the fresh garden veggies added variety to the salad bar, something I’m jazzed about. 

You dealt with the situation really well – I don’t know what I would have done if it happened to me.

Thank you for letting me be a part of that conversation with the camper. I was nervous about having a level two conversation – watching you lead it gave me some ideas and confidence about pulling the camper aside and staying silent while they’re thinking of what they’d like to say.

Aren’t you clever! You always know the right answer.

That was a tough question. I am excited that your studying for an extra hour each day is helping your learn more, and apply that learning. 

Okay guys, let’s get going! Come on guys! Guys!!!!

Alright Manzi 4, it’s time to head down to the dining area for breakfast. Manzi 4, how close are you to being ready (check in with each camper by name)?

Question: Will you go set up the field? Response: I guess.

Question: We need to set up the field for contra dancing, how do you feel about going down and getting started on that?

Response: Erin and I have been trying to find some time to talk about cabin assignments and were planning on doing that right now. If there is no one else available, I can go set up the field as that is more time pressing, but I’d prefer to honor my first agreement.

You should have seen his breakaway with the flag! Man that was cool!

Jake’s dodge around Chad was incredible, he faked left and then ran right past him. I’ve never seen anyone move that fast!