Just Words: The Us and Them Thing
By Val Dumond
What if words and their impact could lead to world peace, family harmony and social justice? Yeah sure! you say.
Why not? I answer. It could happen. What it takes is an awareness of the Us and Them Thing and, with it, the recognition of the importance of chosing courteous and respectful words.
That’s what this book is about – understanding the Us and Them Thing in order to come one step closer to those lofty goals. World peace – one word at a time!
Using language to discuss language is tricky. We may not agree on which language to use. And while we may agree on “English,” are we really speaking “English” or are we using a modified version? (Early Americans blanched at the thought of using “the king’s language.”)
While we in the United States basically use the English language, we have made it our own, a kind of American English. Add to that words borrowed from every country in the world, the shades of meaning in certain words, and the multiple meanings of other words, and you begin to get a sense of the problem of communicating with words.
What did you intend to say?
My understanding is…
I’m not sure what you mean by that.
What does that word mean?
I always thought that word was offensive.
We use words to express ourselves, our feelings, our anxieties, our hopes, our views. We use words to explain, complain, plead, lie, cover up, share, expose, inquire, support, tear apart, hurt, heal, apologize, blame, praise, compliment, destroy, build, acknowledge, sell, flatter…
[Whenever I find a list of words such as the above, I go over them slowly, as the author did when dreaming them up. That provides a clearer sense of the purpose behind all those words. And after all, they are “just words.”]
Confusion about what words are acceptable (let’s get rid of “politically correct”) continues to grow as Americans grapple with problems of diversity. Often regarded as “our differences,” we stretch to accommodate them. But is that necessary? Or even helpful? This book offers a way to adopt inclusive language to eliminate or at least reduce the bias in communication of gender, race, nationality, class, age and religion.
Just Words emphasizes the need to accept the ways we are different, focus on the ways we are alike, and concentrate on ways to respect individuality – all through words. Just Words offers suggestions to express ourselves to stay within the law and to avoid hurting others. This book deals as much with attitude behind words as it does with the words themselves. The trick is to accept diversity rather than disengage from it.
Just Words is about the Us and Them Thing, based on the natural inclination of people to embrace Us and be wary of Them.
The word “Americans” is used in this book to mean people in the United States, while recognizing that all people living in the Western Hemisphere are all considered Americans (Canadians, Mexicans, Venezuelans, Brazilians, Panamanians, Peruvians, etc.).
In the U.S., a nation founded by social outcasts and built by immigrants from around the world, people are challenged to treasure simultaneously their own heritage and the differences of others. This ideal nation – the only nation of the world entirely comprised of people from some place else – places high value on the ways each of us lays claim to our own uniqueness.
At the same time, ideally, we need to cherish the differences, honor and respect all people. The author intends this book to apply to the Americans who live in the U.S., those we consider to be Us – all of us.
However, humans being human beings, people sometimes fear differences, are afraid to recognize someone who isn’t just like Us. These fears often result in outbursts of language (and worse). What often appears as opposition may in fact be a defense. The shorthand word we use to discuss those people who are not like Us is Them.
That briefly is how Americans regard themselves. Some are Us and some are Them. We feel safer that way.
This book looks into the ways that bias has been built into our language over the years – in gender, race, age, class, people with disabilities, and people from other countries. (You’ll find, ironically, that we all come from other countries.)
Consider the power of language and the preferred power of inclusive language. In the very first chapter you’ll find some guidelines on ways to look at word usage to show how some words can be as dangerous as swords and other words can be as healing as medication. In the second chapter, you’ll find a review of the powerful ways that words lead to images which then form attitudes and are the links to behavior.
Chapter 3 shows how words can become a habit. We become used to voicing certain words, only to discover that they no longer are appropriate. We use words that have gone “out of style,” words whose meanings have changed into something else. Slang is not a part of this work because it changes with time and location. “Cool” may mean one thing in New York and something else in Los Angeles, one thing to a 50-year-old and quite another to a teenager. A speaker may think they’re using one word with a particular meaning and the listener may interpret that word with an entirely different meaning.
In the same way, words gain and lose power with usage, even becoming dangerous when they exclude. (We are Us, the insiders, the accepted. They are Them, the outsiders, the unacceptable.)
Even words meant to be kind can exclude. Adults Only can say, “This is an orderly neighborhood; we don’t want kids coming in and messing it up.” Mankind loudly affirms that this is a male civilization where women are tolerated. Family Entertainment can mean “Gays and lesbians stay away.” American Pie implies it’s not to be eaten by “outsiders.” The joke is that we’re all outsiders, with the possible exception of the American Indian. “Possible” implies that even American Indians came from someplace else.
Some call biased language ism-talk, the language of sexism, racism, nationalism, classism or ageism. Others call it exclusive, referring to the words that exclude the other. Several words were considered for a title for this book: Correct, Respectful, Us and Them, The Ism-words, Prejudice, Bias-free, Impartial, Fair, and the ever-popular Politically Correct. All of these words are used generously in any discussion about language in America. However, the title Just Words was chosen not only because of the social implication of justice and fairness, but because the use of certain words in certain situations is covered by law. Unfortunately, this culture has come to the sad state of having to legislate the use of words – where and when they are used and how they are used. Do these regulations really work? Do they help break down barriers of disrespect or do they tend to strengthen them?
There are alternatives to regulations, as there are alternatives to using unjust, unkind, ungenerous words. One way: Take those last three negative adjectives (unjust, unkind, ungenerous) and change them to the positive: fair, respectful and magnanimous. Can the solution be as simple as that?
This book isn’t meant to offer right and wrong talk. This is an exercise in awareness – becoming aware of the impact of words, the repercussions that result from the language we use every day.
Using alternatives requires paying attention to positive, supportive words. To focus on the positive requires patience, because time is needed to turn around the thought process of a nation, to reverse infectious hatred and turn it into tolerance and open-mindedness. That’s a good word – open-mindedness. It connotes leaving room for new ideas, wider thought, greater understanding and, finally, acceptance of others as they are.
Open-mindedness implies that both young and old understand that each has walked or will walk the same path in time, that women and men stand side by side, that skin color is a matter of melanin, that sexual orientation is inborn, and that thought processes and their resulting beliefs are personal areas which must be protected.
Ever the optimists are those who believe that humans possess the brain capacity to make room in the world for people who are not like themselves. Could you imagine a world of clones, all resembling one individual? And if you could, who would that individual be – you? How would you like to live in a world populated completely by you?
Okay, that’s a chilling thought for anyone. Let’s get down to work and look at this business of words. In particular, we’ll focus on the Us and Them Thing.
The language of stereotyping is the topic of Chapter 4. Putting people into neat boxes with labels results in a form of verbal abuse. While making language easier and quicker, stereotypical words more often are confining words that leave little wiggle room for variety. Blue-eyed blonds are beautiful. Bald-headed youth are destructive. Old people are tiddely. Quakers are submissive. Latinos are hot lovers. Indians are lazy. Turtles are slow. Stereotypical words are addressed from many angles, with a discussion about how to categorize and sort the isms.
In Chapter 5, we talk about the outright hate words, the damaging, beastly, obscene words, and how they are as hurtful to the speaker as they are to the target. The language of hate is perhaps the ugliest part of America, a language of envy, pride, suspicion, superiority and fear. These are the words that fall into the category of name-calling. Hurtful words – spewed through unseen hateful mouths, scrawled on walls, whispered into telephones – take a monstrous toll. The basest, lowest, most hideous words used by faceless hate-filled wretches demean not only themselves, but all of humankind.
Then in Chapter 6 we discuss the abusive words, those that do their dirty work through repetition, innuendo, and diminution. Subtle teasing, abusive words can be as damaging as outright violent ones. Words that are spread subversively by innuendo and repetition tend to undermine and demean and lead to further abuse.
When brainwashing was the topic of the day, the power of words to sway, overwhelm, overpower, and convince others became evident. (That was about the same time advertising executives began to look closely at and adopt a similar process.) We discovered we can do away with swearing and name calling and still demean through the powerful repeated suggestions of weakness, sickness, inability, stupidity and incompetence. Words that demean result in lower self-esteem and are both dangerous and damning.
[While the insidious nature of mind control is a compelling subject, we’ll leave that for another day. Be assured that language, repetition, and degradation are the elements of choice. If some alien power wishes to divide people through mind control, the first step is to turn to the Us and Them Thing, beginning with language.]
The benign words of exclusion come in for a closer look in Chapter 7 about the way business is affected by words. How many times a day do you hear a casual phrase or word that offends you? How many times do you use words that may be offensive to someone else, words that are an everyday part of your business vocabulary? How often do you feel left out of advertising which targets other groups? How much business are you losing by excluding some of your potential customers?
Some words are just plain illegal. Others must be used with care. In Chapter 8 we look at the legalities of words, how to avoid getting into trouble with grammar police.
Finally, so that readers won’t be left hanging, you will find some constructive help in Chapter 9. Here you’ll find ways to find alternative language, better choices and how to make them, along with suggestions to improve your communication skills.
As a bonus, you’ll find at the back of the book an Appendix, followed by a comprehensive Glossary of Terms which contains additional fuel to help you build a vocabulary of inclusive language – just words!
The terms in the glossary at the back of this book are alternatives, not necessarily preferred. To know how to refer to people, ask them. Ask those of another cultural background how they prefer to be named or referred to. Believe it or not, some folks object to Baby Boomer, elder, Gen-X, Gen-Y, senior citizen, teenybopper, juvenile. (Some teenagers absolutely hate “teenager.”) If you’re uncomfortable talking with someone who is not like you, ask them how they wish to be called.
Not the typical self-help book, Just Words comes replete with suggestions for recognizing the differences between people while appreciating those same differences. Rather than a list of “Ten Ways to…” this book offers a thorough examination of the role language plays in daily discourse with people, all of whom are not Us.
Hatred and suspicion not only consume precious time but they sap strength. For proof, compare the wrinkles worn by a distrustful angry old crock and those of a considerate, cheerful, agreeable opposite who accepts folks for who they are.
Use this book as a writing tool, a reference to ensure that your written and spoken ideas are free of biased implication. Use it as a general language tool by reading it through. You’ll find help in acquiring simple techniques to reduce human bias in both writing and speaking.
Good communicators don’t need profanity to make meaning clear. Neither do good communicators need to fuel bias through words that exclude part of the population.
Could unbiased language achieve world peace, family harmony, and social justice? Possibly! And when a possibility exists, hope keeps us plugging on.
Refer to this guidebook when preparing business reports, ads, classroom assignments, news copy, sales literature, training material, customer letters, orders, Internet text, and when writing for newspapers, movies and television. Use it when dealing with people you believe are different from you. Talk to strangers (sorry, Mom); ask questions. There is no need to tiptoe around language to sincerely reach out to understand about “differences.” You may find you can abolish labels to define Us and Them as you discover that we are all Us!
The bottom line (and this is only the introduction):
Don’t assume, ask questions
Don’t demean, listen
Don’t accept labels
Do be respectful
Do find likenesses
Do appreciate the difference
Do be courteous
Do be aware! If you come up with a problem of inclusive language that this book doesn’t address, please send it to me in care of the publisher to receive a personal reply.
This book may be too upbeat for those who carry heavy loads in their hearts. For them, only a therapist’s couch will be helpful. For those who recognize the humanity of us all, and the differences that add color and joy to daily lives, who want to improve the enjoyment of daily living, read on. Be patient with yourself, keep your mind wide open and look at those around you with a new unstained spotlight. What happens will be a pleasant surprise.