Crazy, gay, retarded … is it time to reevaluate our choice of words?
The other day, a friend of mine commented about the cavalier way in which salespeople seem to be hyping the upcoming Mothers Day holiday. You see, my friend’s mom died some years ago, so Mothers Day doesn’t have the same meaning for her that it does for others. Some people have great relationships with their moms; some have love-hate relationships; the mothers of others are anything but maternal.
How can you know the status of someone’s relationship with their mom (or father, siblings, or children, for that matter) by looking at them? Simple answer: you can’t. Does that mean you should never mention any of those holidays to anyone, for fear of potentially upsetting someone? Of course not.
It does, however, give us reason to pause and examine the casual ways in which we sometimes use potentially harmful language.
I’m a birthmom in an open adoption. I placed my son with his adoptive family at birth. Occasionally parents make comments to their kids to the effect of, “I should have put you up for adoption when I had the chance.” I always cringe a little when I hear that – for two reasons: (1) I did place my son for adoption after a long, thoughtful decision-making process; (2) it’s a pretty shitty thing for a parent to say to their kid.
Another friend of mine has a mentally ill son. She takes offense when people make comments like “I’m going crazy” or “they’re driving me nuts.” Another acquaintance has a daughter with cerebral palsy, a group of disorders that involve brain and nervous system functions, such as movement, learning, hearing, seeing, and thinking. He finds it offensive when people use the ubiquitous “retarded” to describe boneheaded behaviors and attitudes. Then, of course, there’s the overuse of the word “gay” as a derisive or derogatory term.
In another incident, a friend who’s a professional speaker was using music to set the mood for her presentation. Suddenly, one of the women in her audience burst into tears. It turns out that the lady’s husband had recently died, and she’d used my friend’s innocuous music at his funeral service. My friend said, “That’s it – I’ll never use music again!” That’s an awfully extreme response. How could she possibly have known that one person would be so dramatically affected by an otherwise innocent piece of music?
The thing is, virtually everyone has a hot-button topic – some issue they are sensitive to. Is it ever possible to completely avoid offending all the people we will encounter? Of course not. Like the idea of being all things to all people, being inoffensive to all people is probably never going to happen.
This doesn’t mean we can’t try. Many of the comments mentioned above are generally used in a negative connotation. Couldn’t we make an effort to reach for more positive language, generally, and less offensive language specifically?
Wikihow offers 5 steps to begin eliminating the objectionable use of the word “gay,” but they really apply to the habitual use of almost any kind of language you’d like to change.
- Recognize that that particular language/word has a derogatory impact. It’s important to understand that using the word gay, retarded, or crazy to insult something or someone implies that you think there’s something wrong with being gay, mentally challenged, or mentally ill. Without realizing t, you may come off as prejudiced and/or ignorant.
- Understand the word you want to avoid using. Get to know the full meaning of the word/language you wish to change. People have the right not to be constantly harassed about any aspect of themselves, whether they’re a different race, religion, or even have a different eating preference, such as a vegetarian or vegan.
- Pay attention to your use of derogatory words or phrases. Every time you find yourself using a word to refer to someone or something you don’t like or think is stupid, wrong, or bad in any way, make a mental note. Examine why you want to use that word, and then try to use a different, inoffensive word. If something truly is annoying, stupid, or wrong, then use those words – with precision.
- Identify alternative words or phrases. When using replacement words, remember that they apply not only to your spoken language and writing, but most importantly to your thinking. If you constantly challenge yourself to use alternatives, over time you will become more proficient at using them, perhaps eventually eliminating the negative words altogether.
- Expand your vocabulary. Developing a wider selection of words to have at your disposal is amazingly useful. For one thing, it makes you appear more tolerant and intelligent to the casual observer. Scour your Internet thesaurus for synonyms of words you might have a habit of using disparagingly. Maybe it would be worth investing in a word-of-the-day calendar.
One last thought on this idea of thoughtless language: How do you respond when people say things you find objectionable? One giant peace of the harmony puzzle is releasing our need to be offended. We don’t have to take things personally – we choose to take them personally.
So, next time you find yourself on the receiving end of an unwelcome comment, how will you respond? Will you dig in and get defensive? Will you use it as a teaching moment? Or will you simply let it roll off, knowing the person who made the comment is – just like you are – doing the best they can?
We welcome and encourage your thoughtful, courteous comments below.
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