Watch Your Language

elements of style coverWe were trying to come up with a name for this collection of strategies for dealing with our privilege, strategies which we had adopted and adapted over the years, and which we were working together on writing down. We had been inspired by The Elements of Style, a manual by Strunk and White, which has admirably short, crisp directives about how to write clearly. (Their manual is widely criticized by other experts in grammar and style, a fate which will likely befall us, too.)

For a long time, our working title was, “How Do You Spell Respect?” That got shortened to “Respect,” and then to “R-E-S-P-E-C-T.”  We finally ended up with “How Do You Do Respect?”

We revisited the title and asked ourselves what we wanted it to say.

  • That it was about respect: that is central.
  • That it had rules or guidelines in it: another thing that makes it different from writing theoretically about oppression or diversity or privilege.
  • That it was easy to follow: both in terms of reading it, and, we hoped, in terms of offering ideas to people about how to do it.

We weren’t happy with our ideas about titles so far. “How Do You Spell Respect?” would work if you had already read the book, but didn’t tell you in advance what it was about.

“R-E-S-P-E-C-T” had all sorts of Aretha Franklin resonance that we didn’t intend.

Then we came up with “Respect for Dummies.” Perfect, we thought! Potential readers already know that the “Dummies” series is an introduction, in a do-this, do-that kind of way, to one topic or another.

“Dummies.” A word that is used pejoratively about people who have developmental disabilities. A word that incorporates the notion that some (good) people are smart; other (not so good) people are “dumb.” And this is a title we are considering for our material about showing respect for everyone? Clearly it would not work!

We moved on.

We wanted to communicate that our strategies were easier than you might think. And that we were talking about strategies, not just theory.

Okay, how about “Respect 101: Practical Rules for a Complicated World.”

We settled there, satisfied.  Until we got thinking again.

“Respect 101.” A term that is recognizable as entry level material to anyone who has been to university….and serves to announce to anyone who has NOT been to university that this book is not for them. And “rules”: a loaded word if ever there was one.

Hmmm….back to the drawing board.

How do you do respect?

barbara findlay and Kate Nonesuch

What Does It Mean to Watch Your Language?

yada-yada-222767_640Everyone knows that it is not okay to use insulting language about any group of people. Equally, everyone knows many words that have been used, past or present, to insult marginalized groups. We have all heard racist, sexist, homophobic or other terms used to exclude whole groups from mainstream society.

However, watching your language goes further than eliminating words like those that trigger an immediate reaction in most people. Watching your language means looking at “ordinary language” through the lens of privilege and disadvantage.

Assume that every bit of language is steeped in the maintenance of the status quo.

Then look at all of your language and think of it from the perspective of everyone – yes everyone, one group at a time – on the disadvantage side of the Dis/Advantage Profile


Generally, you are safe to use language that a group has chosen as the way to identify. Pay close attention, however, because words like “Black,” “queer,” and “Aboriginal” change in meaning over time, and will be more or less acceptable depending on where you are. 

Groups sometimes reclaim a word that has been used against them, and use that word among themselves. However, people outside the group do not have permission to use such terms. For example, people with a disability may refer to themselves or to each other as “gimps.” Inside the group, the term may be used ironically or familiarly, in the process of reclaiming it. When a person outside the group uses it, it will be insulting.


  • Anyone talking about “homosexuals” gives themselves away immediately as someone who is straight, knows very little about queers, may believe that queers are unnatural or sinful, and is (probably) uncomfortable with the words “gay” and “lesbian.”
  • Look at the word “outreach.” If you are doing “outreach,” where is the centre? By using the word “outreach,” you are claiming the centre for yourself. Consider instead words like “connections,” “liaisons,” and “partnerships.”
  • “Remote” is another tell-tale word: remote to whom?
  • “Prostitute” says something much different than “sex trade worker.”
  • “Illiterate” conveys judgment as well as a description.
  • “Ladies and gentlemen” leaves out trans people.

Being Inclusive

Everyone thinks that a goal of diversity work is to be inclusive.  But look at what that means.

Who is at the centre, when you are “including” someone?  Who is on the inside? Who is on the outside?  When we say that we want to include someone, we are implicitly leaving unchanged the ways of the group we are including the person into. We are assuming that the person-to-be-included wants to be a part of the show we have got going. We are assuming that we are the people with the power to include (or, by extension, exclude) people. 

The language that we use both sets up, and communicates, who is in and who is out.  Be careful out there!

You probably have more examples—let’s hear them in the comments section!

And If We Don’t Watch Our Language?

It’s easy to see. Everyone on the disadvantaged side recognizes instantly when they are excluded. Nothing we can say afterward will change that. They will not believe that we did not intend to exclude them, or that we do indeed want them in the conversation, and convincing them otherwise will be an uphill battle.

What Good Will Come of Watching Our Language?

We will quickly develop a facility at recognizing exclusionary words, and an ease with a respectful vocabulary.

People who are, in relation to us, in the disadvantaged place will recognize us as allies; and that is the beginning of trust.

What Gets in the Way?

The fear of being “wrong” gets in the way. What if the term we are choosing is one which has gone out of favour? What if we get it wrong? 

Our own reactions to the need to change our language gets in the way. We have sometimes thought, on being asked to change our language, “people should not be so sensitive,” rather than trying to understand the pain that so-called “ordinary language” causes. 

We have sometimes felt exasperated that it is so difficult to be “politically correct”–a term that is often used in this context as a way of disparaging the legitimate requests for respectful language.

We have felt threatened when our ordinary, everyday language turns out to contribute to someone else’s pain because it is such an immediate reminder of how we participate in the systemic oppression of others, even when we do not intend to do that.

Like everything that serves to maintain power imbalances, the language that keeps people down will at first seem natural and appropriate. Watching your language should give you some uncomfortable moments.

3 thoughts on “Watch Your Language

  1. Pingback: Grammar and Oppression | Across Difference

  2. Pingback: Those People | Across Difference

  3. Pingback: Pronouns: Who are you calling “We”? | Across Difference

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