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Home / Articles / Columnists / On the Bright Side /  Respond vs. React
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Friday, January 5,2018

Respond vs. React

By Jonna Shutowick. M.S. Ed.  

Is there a difference between reacting and responding? According to the dictionary they are interchangeable: to react is to respond to something and vice versa. I began thinking about this because I recently experienced a visceral reaction to something I read. I had to stop myself from reacting without thinking first. If I replied to what I had read quickly, without thinking, I would be acting, thus it would be my reaction to what I was feeling. But if I paused to consider the context of what I was reading and the larger picture of where this discomfort fit into the larger picture of my life and what outcome I truly wanted in the end, I would have been pondering, hence resPONding. Naturally, this sent me down the etymology road. I’m sure I’ve already lost the non wordsmiths out there… but if you’re like me and you love words, please put on your coolest pair of nerd glasses and read on!

According to the good people at online etymology dictionary, ‘respond’ stems from the Latin respondere, and its usage meaning ‘to answer’ dates to medieval France circa 1300 (fun fact: correspondence was first used in the 1640s referring to letters between two who answer each other). Use of the word ‘react’ is also traced to the 1640s and means “to exert, as a thing acted upon, an opposite action upon the agent.”

Alas - my Spidey senses were correct! I read something upsetting (agent). Had I immediately responded (answered), it would actually have been a reaction. When I stopped to consider my reaction, I instead chose to respond, rather than acting in reaction to the upsetting agent. (Incidentally, the response I chose was silence). The word, "ponder" stems from the Latin ponderere to consider or reflect, actually stemming from pondus, which means ‘weight’. Hence, to ponder is literally to weigh. Here is w herem ySpidey senses were slightly off, at least according to the etymology website. I wanted to see a correlation between the word ponder and the word respond, but alas, there was none.

Perhaps 400 years from now, there will be another entry in the online etymology dictionary (or whatever the 25th century equivalent of that will be!) that dates back to 2021 being the first use of the word response to mean carefully consider one’s reaction. Here’s why. We seem to be at a flashpoint in our history as fellow Americans. It’s not the first time and won’t be the last, nonetheless, one is upon us and I would like to see more people responding to others, rather than reacting. The assault on our sensibilities has been roused on just about every front. Regardless of age, race, gender, tax bracket, political affiliation…. You are likely offended on a daily basis by someone on the “other side” who is equally offended at your “side”. And it has unfortunately seeped deeper than just politics. It’s becoming a sort of tribalism that has everyone joining “camps”. But does it have to get so ugly? Regardless of whether you’re conservative or liberal, black, brown or white, male or female, ponder what is really going on. Ponder your own reactions to things and have an honest, long hard look at why something is making you upset. Are you feeling defensive? Remind yourself that when someone attacks it is also from a place of defensiveness. When everyone is defensive nothing but a downward spiral can result. Ponder what kind of action you can take that will be constructive, rather than destructive. And it certainly does not begin with trying to change someone else’s mind! I’m reminded of a quote that has been attributed to everyone from Rumi to Abraham Lincoln: Before you speak, ask yourself three questions: Is it honest? Is it necessary? Is it kind?" If all of our responses passed this test we would be responding, not reacting, and we might have a chance to stave off some violence that is unfortunately brewing on many fronts right now. It’s worth it to try.


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