Wielding the power of words
“Words are, in my not-so-humble opinion, our most inexhaustible source of magic. Capable of both inflicting injury, and remedying it.” J.K. Rowling
I hope you’re not sick of J.K.’s wisdom yet!
At a recent family dinner, we were discussing whether I would change my last name when I get married next year. This of course led to a deep dive into a multi-layered discussion of names. In our blended family, there are three different last names that also represent a mixture of ethnicities. My step-sister, whose last name is hyphenated Scottish and Chinese names, said that growing up it felt critical to her that she shared one of my step-mom’s names because so often people made assumptions that she was adopted based on her appearance. For her that name, that word, held the power of belonging and also deflection of other’s assumptions.
There are a lot of opinions out there about the power of words. To some, a word only holds as much power as you give it. Sticks and stones and all that. For others they are tools that can help or harm depending on how you use them. In my workplace we have lengthy debates about the use of a single word, because our communication roles are about perception – about how our words will be interpreted by the receiver.
Words are given power by the sender, but it’s most important that we consider the receiver first when we set out to build an inclusive environment.
A perfect example are jokes. A friend makes a joke about someone of a different ethnicity, religion, gender or sexual orientation, but you’re sure they would never discriminate or intentionally hurt someone with that background. For the receiver, that doesn’t really matter; nor does it matter if those joked about are present.
Careless words, whether there is intended malice or not, can create a toxic environment.
The Meaning and Messages Behind Words
This effect is often referred to as “microaggression”, a term first coined by Prof. Chester M. Pierce of Harvard University in 1970 and has since expanded.
“Microaggressions are the everyday verbal, nonverbal, and environmental slights, snubs, or insults, whether intentional or unintentional, which communicate hostile, derogatory, or negative messages to target persons based solely upon their marginalized group membership.” – Derald Wing Sue Ph.D. (Psychology Today)
A very useful way of illustrating the power of language, and how words might be microaggression, is with this diagram, below (based on this one about covert racism). This triangle reflects words that women might hear. At the top of the triangle are pretty hateful terms but less frequently heard (I hope!). Below the surface are the more common and subvert comments that men and women might hear, read or say everyday.
As women in agriculture, we often discuss the phrases that get on our nerves and undermine our work. “Can I talk to the man in charge?”, “You’re much better looking than the last guy!” “Still waiting on a ring, eh?”. One time is annoyance. Heard regularly, these names, terms, and phrases deliver the message that our industry still lacks respect for women. Even if you’ve never heard them yourself, someone else might dissuade you from certain jobs or spaces because they know the environment that exists.
We can all imagine what other word triangles look like or know them from experience. They can be about anything – sexual orientation, race, religion, even geographic location. I admit the word “citiot” used to be in my vocabulary and looking back I so embarrassed about that. But even if that particular word isn’t used, the attitude towards city living can be obvious in other word choices. What kind of environment does that create for urbanites who want to join our industry? What does that communicate to our customers, the vast majority of whom live in cities?
What We Can Do
So what do we do to build a more inclusive environment through our words?
It’s important to consider our unconscious biases. Jen and Joan wrote an amazing piece about unconscious bias in September and I suggest revisiting and sharing it. If so much about word choice is unintentional, we all benefit from shining the spotlight on our choices. I shouldn’t have had to move to the city to realize I needed to adjust my attitude and the terms I use.
We can also ask for change. Calling it out when you hear microaggression, whether it’s intentional or not, can create a better environment.
Most important though is to use the power to heal. In the CBC opinion piece “Why ‘they’ matters.”, Julian Paquette discusses pronoun choice and explains why word choice is so powerful to the receiver. It’s not just about the hurt, it’s also about the healing power. “…respecting people’s stated pronouns – though it may seem foreign at first – is a powerful act of respect and inclusion.”
Really thinking about and then choosing words that help and heal can go a long way to building an inclusive environment.