This post is for anyone who gets overwhelmed by headlines, Instagram stories, and tweets that use all kinds of social terms you aren't familiar with. You want to ask questions, but are afraid of saying something wrong in the process. Here's what you should know before you download "Social Justice" on Duolingo.
“Katie, you know what makes me so angry?” My passionate teenage client had just arrived, the conversation ready to explode out of him before he had even sloughed off his backpack.
“People using the wrong pronouns! Like, I have a bunch of friends who have updated their pronouns, and it’s like, cool. I use their new pronouns. And my other friends, they all use the new pronouns too. You know what I’ve noticed, it’s adults who don’t use the right pronouns. And they make all these excuses, like ‘Oh I’m trying,’ ‘Oh it’s hard to change habits’, whatever. Like, bullshit. It’s not that hard. Just be a decent person, shit!”
“That’s a pretty interesting observation.” I paused. “I have that same problem, too. I am trying, but I mess up a lot.”
He blinked, confused. “Wait, what? You?”
“Yeah. I think you’re spot on about adults versus younger people. It is a lot harder to change those verbal patterns when you’re older. I’ve noticed the difference in my brain now, back from when I was a teenager. Even with the work that we do at speech IRL now, I am really clumsy with pronouns. You’re still right, of course—it is no excuse, it’s a reminder that I need to dedicate more time to practice. But adult brains...we’re very slow at changing patterns like this.”
His body language softened. “Hmph. I guess. But it’s still wrong.”
“Yes, that’s absolutely true,” I agreed. “It’s not fair or right to those on the receiving end. So, support your friends who are dealing with people like me. And make sure you enjoy your adaptable brain while you have it.”
In the era of memes, tweets, angry acronyms and eponymous insults, the words we use mean more in 2020 than ever before. As this client pointed out, we’re all making changes to the way we talk about certain things—especially this year—because our society as a whole is changing. It was easy for me to empathize with his frustrations because I’ve had my own moments of disbelief and impatience with others who aren’t adjusting as quickly as I’d like them to.
George Floyd was murdered on May 25, 2020. The nation ignited that weekend. On Monday, I started receiving emails from clients. “We’re having a town hall to address this weekend, and need to prep the managers. Can you give us guidelines on what to say?”
I remember sitting at my computer, thinking of how to respond to that request. I suppose it will be at least a few weeks before Harvard Business Review publishes “Best Practices for Discussing Historic Civil Unrest With Freshly Traumatized Employees.” In the meantime…
Start with Person-First Language
I have always been fascinated by what people say. I started reading sociolinguistics textbooks for fun in high school. My life interest has always been what people say, and why they say it the way that they do. On the continuum from fully unconscious communication and word choices, to deliberately crafted communication and word choices, there is a unique story at every point. What we say tells a story about who we are, who we believe we are, and how we understand the world around us.
My first professional education regarding “words matter” was in graduate school, studying to become a speech-language pathologist. I don’t remember which course it was, but we were instructed very early on about the importance of “person-first language” when talking about people with disabilities. I had never thought twice about the subtleties in phrases like “blind person” or “autistic” before, but the professor explained it clearly. The idea of PFL is to emphasize that people are, well, people, first and foremost. Disabilities, diagnoses, or other categorical descriptors are merely one part of a person and should not define them, as evidenced by word order within a phrase. PFL uses phrase structures like “person with autism” (PWA) or “person who stutters” (PWS).
As I said, I had never thought twice about this, but it made lots of sense when it was explained both in theory and in practice. Got it! I can do this. It took some practice, of course. You could always tell the first-years from the second-years because us newbies would occasionally let an “autistic” slip in classroom discussions.
I found my home in the stuttering community not too long after graduating, which intersects with disability culture and activism more broadly. I learned words with unique meaning in the stuttering community, which were borrowed from other social movements: “advertise” (which seems to have evolved to “disclose,”) “covert,” “coming out.” I noticed that despite our clear directions to use PFL in graduate school, many PWS referred to themselves as “stutterers.”
Thanks to Twitter, I learned that identity-first language is also “a thing,” with a rich and compelling history and motivation. Autistic is a powerful and important word.
So uh...which one am I supposed to use???
...what about Black vs black vs African-American? What about queer vs LGBTQ2PIA+? What’s BIPOC? Are “you guys” and “that’s crazy” really so bad? How can anyone possibly keep up with all this? You know what, I’m just going to keep my mouth shut, otherwise I’ll get “cancelled.”
Stepping Into the Future
As a speech-language pathologist and communication therapist, my job in an inclusion setting is to help people improve communication, especially in challenging contexts. We tend to work with organizations that have made progress in actively recruiting a diverse workforce and have some structural practices in place. But diversity progress creates its own challenges. It turns out that once you put a diverse group of people into a common space and ask them to work together, stuff gets messy.
Language and word choice are especially sensitive in 2020. “Saying the wrong thing” has taken on new levels of consequence. If you are a “regular” person not embedded in activist spaces, it feels like the world has suddenly adopted a new dialect and you are a bad person if you don’t speak it. Heck, even if you are an activist, it can feel like the pressure is on to maintain constant high levels of woke phraseology.
This creates fear. Fear holds us back, when it feels like the pain of failing is more potent than the potential reward. Fear prevents us from taking risks, learning new things, and discovering our own potential.
The fact is, the world is speaking a new language in 2020. More accurately, it is an old language that has been spoken in many places for a long, long time, but one that many of us chose not to hear. Now, what was once a local dialect is becoming a lingua franca.
If you’re struggling with the lingua franca of 2020, here are three suggestions for getting up to speed:
- Learn Stories, Not Vocabulary
Busy professionals who want to be up-to-speed on inclusivity often ask for punch lists of “things to say” and “things not to say.” But “acceptable terminology” is constantly evolving and changes fast, which makes static lists fraught with peril. More importantly, there is a meaning behind each word, and memorizing vocabulary without semantics severely limits your communication proficiency.
If you are overwhelmed, focus on quality over quantity. Pick one term that you’ve seen or heard, and learn the story behind that term. Where did it come from? Why is it now preferred over something else? What word was previously used, and why did it fall out of style? For example, here is a great primer on the term BIPOC, how it relates to the word Black, and the meanings of both.
To learn the story of a word is to learn the story of the people who use that word. As you learn about the stories of people with experiences different from your own, you’ll start to notice patterns in the new preferred terminology. It becomes easier to identify, adopt, and fluently incorporate additional vocabulary when you have a frame of meaning.
- Focus On Doing, Not Talking
Actions speak louder than words, and this still holds true in 2020. Those of us who live and work in support, advocacy, and activist spaces are well aware that each subspace has a set of terms, rituals, and mantras that bind the community together. It is impossible for newcomers to grasp, let alone master, this collection right off the bat. You are not expected to be perfect.
The act of joining the space (assuming genuine intent) counts for a lot more than awkward use of outdated terminology. By showing up and participating (even if that just means listening and asking questions to learn more), you are demonstrating the right thing.
Doing in 2020 means things like the following:
- Sticking up for someone who feels like they aren’t in a position to be taken seriously
- Listening to, believing, and validating the experiences of those who have experienced discrimination or exclusion
- Proactively checking in with someone if you sense they might be affected by something that’s going on
- Openly sharing with others that you have been learning about or participating in work to support historically marginalized and/or underrepresented groups
- In a professional setting, highlighting the accomplishments and skills of colleagues who don’t get as many accolades as others
All of these are relationship behaviors. Behaviors and actions, not fancy vocabulary, are what makes someone an ally.
If you stick around, you will become fluent thanks to good old-fashioned immersion. And you’ll be able to help the next newcomer in their journey of learning.
- Expect Forgiveness
This reads like a radical statement as “cancel culture” increasingly shows up in headlines. And yes, in some communication arenas (social media and the news, particularly), this may not be applicable.
But in a true community setting: a workplace, a neighborhood, a school, a religious community, where there are a group of real people committed long-term to issues they care about, the likelihood of forgiveness is tremendously high.
I vividly remember a succinct observation by a senior executive in a group that I was facilitating. He had recently “stepped out” by taking a communication risk with his entire department. He had admitted to every employee, in writing, that he was uncertain and conflicted about his own statements. He was amazed at the positive response this vulnerable statement received, from all levels of staff.
“I grew up in a time when there were winners and losers,” he reflected. “You got it done, or you didn’t, and that was that. And people moved on. But many of our employees today, they’re of the generation where everybody got a trophy. They don’t care about winning...they just want to see us try. And it doesn’t make sense to me, but it genuinely seems that as long as they see us really trying, that’s enough, even if we don’t get it right all the time. So my takeaway from this experience is that we should really keep trying, that’s how things go forward.”
Learn at a doable pace. Focus on helping people, not saying certain words. Be willing to do your best, fall down, receive feedback, get back up, and do it all over again.
Learning a new language is work, and it takes time—whether it’s Mandarin, Portuguese, or the language of social justice. You’re going to speak with an accent and have to ask friends, “How do you say this?” You’re going to make mistakes, but if you’re surrounded by others who support your learning, they will help you out. And you’ll be able to help others, in turn.
I facilitated a lengthy series of inclusion workshops for a company last year, spread out over many months. A manager I’ll call Sam attended every workshop, both the mandatory and non-mandatory ones. “I don’t know about this stuff, but I’m doing my best to learn,” he said. He confessed that he was having a difficult time adapting his speaking habits to be more inclusive, especially with pronouns. I shared with him the story of my outraged teenager, to validate that his struggle wasn’t due to lack of effort—learning a new language is hard. I encouraged him to keep practicing.
Months later, he spoke up at a different workshop. “I want to thank everyone here. It’s been a lot of work to pay attention to all of this, all the time. What I’ve learned is that it’s important to keep trying, so I’ve done my best.
And it worked! This past weekend, I was at a baseball game with an old friend. His daughter just came out as trans. He told me she would be joining us, and her name. And when she arrived, I had no problem at all remembering to use her pronouns—it felt totally natural! And on top of that, my friend was uncertain about how he should act. I was able to share a lot of what I learned here and helped him understand what he can do. I realized that I’ve changed, and was able to help someone else who struggled with the same things I did. It’s really motivated me to keep learning.”
Start somewhere, listen, practice, and ask for help...and share what you learn, in the process.