Thursday, April 27, 2017

The Tone of Words

Trigger Warning: this post may contain words and phrases that could evoke emotional response, academic disagreement, and be offensive. Reader discretion is advised.

Do words matter? There seems to be a great deal of discussion about this in the media these days. When I was a kid, we used to banter the old "sticks and stones" back and forth. Supposedly that old saw was first printed back in 1862 (a few years even before "back when I was a kid"). We were convinced (or convincing ourselves perhaps) that words could not hurt us. The reality was that words often did back then, and there are still occasions when they do. However, a great many of us seem to have (or want others to think we have) developed tremendously thick skin.

I have been thinking of the impact of words for some time. A couple of years ago, Bob Wilson of workerscompensation.com published a piece in which he suggested a fatal flaw in workers' compensation has to do with vernacular instead of fact. He has focused us on several examples over recent years. He contends that "injured worker" should instead be "recovering worker." The emphasis shifted to the "recovery" instead of the "injury." He has suggested that "workers' compensation" should be "workers' recovery." Again, shifting the emphasis to a positive outcome and away from monetary recompense. 

This word selection analysis came back to me recently when I was privileged to speak at the Colorado Workers' Compensation Conference. It was  great gathering, populated by a very diverse crowd. After the panel discussion, I found myself engaged in a conversation with various Coloradans, and the topic was (of course) marijuana. Apparently, in the course of the panel, I referred to "marijuana" and they took umbrage at my choice of words. 

They explained to me that "marijuana" is derogatory at worst and dismissive at best. The substance that is being sold in Colorado, they assured me, is instead "cannabis." That has a nice ring to it. So the selection of descriptors, even if they are both technically accurate, may be important. It was important to them. One incredulously challenged me: "are you telling me that you never once in college smoked pot?" I confirmed I had not, and the conversation continued. Everyone else in the conversation admitted to recreational drug use. It was not until several hours later, sitting at the gate for my red-eye to Miami, that it struck me that the same person who took umbrage at my use of "marijuana" had thus used "pot" instead of the advocated "cannabis."

Words, word choices, perceptions, feelings, and much to think about. 

Later, I ran across a story on LinkedIn by an attorney. Someone applied for a job at his firm, and he had denied an interview. He did, however, return the applicant's writing sample with "editing," "redlining" and "comments." The applicant was troubled enough about this feedback to publish her perceptions of the interaction on Glassdoor (an Internet job and recruiting website/application). The LinkedIn article generated many comments and "likes." The comments I read went both ways, some supporting the author and others the job applicant. Some who supported the author nonetheless conceded that the applicant's reaction might have resulted from the author's word choices and tone. 

The LinkedIn author suggests that there has been a "generational shift." He recounts his college experience in a "sort of rough and tumble place," at a time (back in 2004) when "people had different ideas and might say stuff that offended you." He laments an "entire culture" that has been "created by being helicopter parents," who argued "with their (kid's) teachers to get them better grades," by parents "coddling them and holding their hand through absolutely everything." He mentions "trigger warnings" (such as the one that led off this post) and "safe spaces." In the end, the "shift" he describes is a dichotomy between the Millennial generation and seemingly everyone else. Millennials have received a dose of criticism, right or wrong, as discussed recently in USA Today

Labels, words, tone, word choices, perceptions, feelings, and much to think about.

While all of that was rolling around in my head, I spotted a Detroit headline Michigan doctors charged in first federal genital mutilation case in US. This is a topic upon which there appears to be little "middle ground." One critic referred to the practice as "demonic" in a Detroit Free Press article.

The practice is variously described. Som
e refer to it as "mutilation," some as "female circumcision," and others simply as "cutting." The World Health Organization ("WHO") provides background and statistics. On its website the "WHO strongly urges health professionals not to perform such procedures." It notes that such procedures are "recognized internationally as a violation of the human rights of girls and women." The WHO information is forthright, direct, and uncompromising both in tone and content. 

Following that developing story, I ran across another headline New York Times scraps 'female genital mutilation' for being 'culturally loaded' term. According to FoxNews, the Times has "decided the paper shouldn’t use the term 'female genital mutilation' because the phrase is too 'culturally loaded.'” It "widens a divide between the Western world and 'people who follow the rite.'” The paper had decided instead to refer to "the act of removing the female genitalia of young girls" as “genital cutting,” so as to not widen that gulf between advocates for and opponents of what WHO calls "torture and cruel, inhumane or degrading treatment." Should anyone care about the perceptions of those who practice torture? 

Descriptions, labels, words, tone, word choices, perceptions, feelings, and much to think about. 


A blog post on the Huffington Post recently came to my attention because Mark Pew posted it on LinkedIn. The author of this piece takes issue with using the word "addict," because it is "a word with overwhelmingly negative connotations." The author notes that we do not refer to others by some malady or disease label, and that "addict" "is incredibly harmful and offensive." That seems a valid point. You might hear "my nephew, the addict," but unlikely would hear "my nephew, the cancer patient."


The HuffPo blogger suggests that words can hurt. The analysis questions whether words can be better considered and chosen. Can the decision not to use a term like "addict" be positive for the perspective and mindset of someone struggling with the challenges of substance dependency?


The upshot of all of this it that words do have the potential to offend and to hurt. One may be o.k. with being a "cannabis user," but hurt if called a "pot head." One might feel fine about being a "cutter" or advocating "cutting," but take offensive at being a "mutilator" or advocating "mutilation." 

There may be benefit in connoting positives, like the perception of improvement in "workers' recovery." There may be negatives in misdirecting focus with "compensation" or with "addict." 

It may be that some among us will not be able to look, or "hear," past words and phrases that offend or shock us. We are all likely to encounter words or ideas that trouble, confuse, or offend us. Some will work past that initial ("gut" or "emotional") reaction, and be able to consider statements on their merit. Others, it appears, will find it impractical or impossible to get past the offense. They will begin and end their analysis with hurt feelings, and whatever substance might have been conveyed will be lost.

Should we therefore couch our terms and words such that no one will ever be offended? Is it practical to strive for communication that cannot offend, and thus assure each and every listener will both receive and consider the substance of the message? It seems that it is neither practical nor even possible. 

We are a diverse species. We have a great many differences, in culture, beliefs, education, economics, and more. We are not going to always see eye-to-eye. Disagreements in perspective are frankly inevitable. A word that you find perfectly innocuous may nonetheless be absolutely offensive to me. With that in mind, we will all face word-choice decisions.  We simply cannot evolve to inserting "trigger warning" prefaces into each and every thought we express.

Should intent matter? If our intent is to motivate with "recovery," is that laudable? If our intent is to avoid stigmatizing a disease with "addict" is that desirable? If our intent is to avoid hurting the feelings of those who advocate "torture" and human right violations, is that appropriate? In a world awakening each day to hopefully greater appreciation of diverse feelings, cultures, and beliefs, does our individual perspective or intent with particular words matter, or will those words be judged solely by the perceptions of those who hear them? 

Descriptions, labels, words, tone, word choices, perceptions, and feelings will always matter. Generational differences in beliefs and values will persist, with each generation doubting the preparedness and competence of the next. Similarly, cultures will clash. There will be friction. And throughout, there will be the need to communicate, to share ideas, to convey perceptions, to express beliefs. 

Some of those will be offensive to others. It will be our individual and collective burden to listen past the offense, and to strive to also hear the message. Some will perhaps be substantively worthy of consideration, and others not. But to make that individual decision, which will contribute to the collective societal decisions that follow, we will all have to listen past the offense that tone, tenor, and word choice may inevitably evoke. 

Recognizing that our terms may offend is a first step. The term "addict" is one that I will henceforth strive to avoid. I understand that my acceptance of that change is perhaps facilitated by my experiences, education, and culture. The terms "mutilation" and "torture" are terms that I will conversely not avoid. I reject that change. I do so fully conscious that my background likely influences similarly. This distinction is a value conclusion, in which I accept certain changes and reject others. 

For me, this distinction is based on my personal conclusion that avoiding a word so as not to stigmatize or offend someone who is ill ("addict") is appropriate, and is different than avoiding a word ("mutilation") so as not to offend someone who hurts and mistreats ("tortures") other people. I conclude that those who torture are appropriately called torturers, and that what they do is appropriately labeled mutilation. I will strive to respect everyone, their being, culture, and beliefs. But, I will not always agree with their conclusions. Just as our judgment will lead us to eschew some words, it will lead us to retain others. And through them, we will express ideas. Others may find them disagreeable or offensive, but if we listen to each other we will grow.  

We will grow if we choose to grow. 

The tone of words will challenge us. Communication will challenge us. The art and skill of listening will challenge us. Time will tell if we stand up to all that implies. 



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