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You ARE What You Speak, So Mind Your Language!

Posted: July 3, 2017

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Do you mind your language when you speak? Be aware of the words you use, as these can discriminate without you realizing it!

“Sexist language, racist language, theistic language – all are typical of the policing languages of mastery, and cannot, do not permit new knowledge or encourage the mutual exchange of ideas.”  – Toni Morrison, Nobel Lecture, 1993

Words are a powerful tool; they can comfort the sad, motivate the uninspired, and calm the agitated. But words can also alienate and exclude in ways that can damage not just individuals but also society as a whole. Racist, sexist, ageist, and heterosexist expressions are some such examples.

Linguist experts Edward Sapir and Benjamin Lee Whorf, who studied the effects of language, proposed that language determines thoughts. For example, racist language express racist attitudes; sexist language puts people down because of their gender; ageist expressions show prejudice against older people; and heterosexist language indicates hate for people who are gays, lesbians, bisexual, etc.

Therefore, changing the way we speak can change our thoughts. It can encourage new ways of thinking, and possibly lead to a positive shift in our attitudes.

Here are some guidelines to eliminate prejudice in your language:

Racist language

Racism can be direct and deliberate, or sometimes subtle and unintentional. To be mindful of racist expressions:

  • Recognise and appreciate that every person, irrespective of community, race, or ethnicity, is unique and therefore shouldn’t be stereotyped. For example, not all Indians are rapists, not all Pakistanis are terrorists, and not all Americans are racists.
  • Avoid using racial and ethnic modifiers to describe people when it’s irrelevant. For example, Hindu merchants, Muslim tailors, Chinese dentists, etc.
  • Avoid using derogatory terms, such as chinki, sardar, bhaiyaa, bavaa, for people of a particular community, race, or ethnic group.

Sexist language

Sexist language stems from rigid beliefs about gender roles. To remove sexist language from your vocabulary:

  • Use they to replace he and she which will eliminate any gender references. For example, instead of saying A teacher should communicate well with her students use Teachers should communicate well with their students.
  • Substitute sex-specific terms with gender-neutral terms. For example, substitute policeman with police officers, chairman with chairperson, Congressman with Member of Congress, etc.
  • Avoid using the word man broadly. For example, replace mankind with humanity, manpower with labour, layman with layperson, manmade with artificial or synthetic, etc.

Note: There may be situations where it is necessary to mark the sex clearly. In such instances, it is acceptable to specify the gender for purposes of clarity.

Ageist language

Ageist language grows from the belief that older people are physically and mentally incompetent. Some ways to eliminate ageist language are:

  • Focus on the person, their qualities, and not their age. Do not patronise older people by talking down to them.
  • Speak at a normal volume and pace. Not all older people are hard of hearing.
  • Include them in your conversations. Most older people are keen to discuss and share their views about the world around them.
  • Avoid using derogatory terms to describe older people.
  • Avoid refreshing their memory, unless asked specifically to do so. Most older people remain mentally sharp and alert well into old age.

If an older person does have communication difficulties, use the guidelines from The American Speech and Hearing Association to adjust your communication style.

Heterosexist language

Heterosexism perpetuates the belief that only opposite-sex relationships are natural and worthy of respect, but we owe it to humanity to be respectful of people’s preferences and choices. Here are some ways to curb heterosexist tendencies:

  • Recognise that gays, lesbians, etc. are individuals in their right and unique just like every person, irrespective of their sexual orientation
  • Refrain from using mannerisms, such as eye blinks or hand movements, that portray gays or lesbians as caricatures.
  • Avoid using You don’t look gay or lesbian as a compliment. It isn’t!
  • Don’t perpetuate stereotypes by saying things like Lesbians hate men or Gays are effeminate.
  • Avoid excessively attributing everything about a person to them being gay or lesbians.
  • Don’t intentionally exclude gay or lesbian friends, colleagues, or relatives, from celebrations or gatherings.

Discriminatory language often stems from deep-rooted beliefs about other people. I hope these tips help you align your intentions and language, thus mindfully creating a dignified and equal society for everyone.

Image source: flickr, for representational purposes only.

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