This week I was surprised to learn that so many of our commonly used terms are racist, sexist, and generally insensitive. For example, Indian Summer, Rain Dance, Sleeping Beauty, Peanut Gallery, Open the Kimono, Eskimo, Hip Hip Hooray, Rule of Thumb, Basket Case, Hysteria, and Knock on Wood, are all off limits because they all have roots that are controversial. I was having a conversation with a colleague and some of his students, and it became clear that each person in our discussion has a different filter and different sensitivities to these terms.
Every time we speak there is a chance we will unintentionally offend someone.
As someone who uses metaphor, hyperbole, and puns all the time, this was really troublesome. For example, the professor mentioned that his course assistant was very worried when he casually told the students he was helping with a difficult assignment that they “shouldn’t kill themselves over it.” Of course, this was hyperbole. Should he really be worried?
I was reminded that I was schooled by a student when I said that “done correctly, brainstorming reverses depression.” My goal was to communicate that when everyone is open to wild ideas and builds upon them during a brainstorming session, it makes everyone feel great. If you feel great at the end of a brainstorming session, you’ve likely done it right… Yes, depression is a terrible condition, and brainstorming doesn’t really reverse it. Was my intention unclear?
In addition, when does a term lose its original meaning and become part of our common vernacular? For example, “rule of thumb” is derived from the “rule” — from 1782 — that you could beat your wife with a stick as long as it was less than the width of your thumb. That’s horrible! But, the term now means something completely different. Same is true for “hip hip hooray,” which has antisemitic roots.
My goal is never to offend anyone, and I’m sure that is the case for most others.
We appear to be doomed (hyperbole) because we don’t know the origins of all the words and phrases we use, and are sometimes a fish out of water (metaphor) when talking with someone with a different background.
In talking with some of my students, I learned that many feel as I do — stressed that they may inadvertently fall into a verbal pothole (metaphor.) Those from other countries are particularly at risk of offending because they don’t know the local jargon.
It gets even worse when you consider humor, which often pushes the limits of acceptability. It is hard to know when you will cross the line — what is funny to one person, or in one context, might be totally unacceptable in another. As our communities grow more diverse, the chances that we bump up against someone’s sensitivities increase.
As my colleague put it, the ultimate goal is to push toward more inclusiveness. I see that as a two way street (metaphor.) Yes, we should be sensitive to how we use language, and to learn the origin of the words we use. And, those who are sensitive could focus on the thoughts and feelings behind specific terms, as well as illuminating the speaker about the potential harm they cause.
A former student of mine was a little person, about 3 feet tall. I sometimes found myself inadvertently saying or doing things that made me cringe afterward, such as referring to someone else’s height, or excitedly picking her up when she came to visit. She told me that she was never offended, since she knew that everything I did came from a place of love.
It is impossible to avoid making mistakes. Phrases such as “rule of thumb” are hand-me-downs (pun) from past generations. We use them without knowing how they evolved. There are endless opportunities to learn how the words we use effect others. Every interaction provides a chance to gain empathy and insight. There is not one silver bullet. (Can you say that?!?)