The Power of Words

Roots

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Uncovering the Roots of What We Casually Say

**The following blog post addresses strong language – if this is a trigger, please be aware.**

BEAT it.”

SHOOT me an email.”

“You look like DEATH.”

“That’s quite the PUNCH-line.”

“Take a STAB at it.”

“How many HITS does the video have?”

If you’ve read this far into the blog you are probably curious about where this conversation might go.

Am I about to yell at people for the way they speak? Am I going to suggest that every single word out of people’s mouths be rehearsed and self-checked for correctness? Might I even be saying that our conversations sometimes need to be edited more heavily than an academic paper? Well… I might think those things – but I wold never say them for fear of touching a nerve. Or would I?

Here’s where I’ll take the conversation instead:

  1. I’ll begin by talking about a few words or phrases I think allude to violence, are destructive to sexuality, reference an ignored history, or demonstrate deliberate cultural ignorance.
  2. Then, if you’re still with me, I’ll talk about the unseen impact of these words on people you may not even think about, like our clients at the HER Shelter.
  3. Finally, for those truly dedicated enough, I will address some strategies and substitutions to help you transition to a new mindset on language.

**Please note – I am neither a psychologist nor a linguist, therefore the things I mention (though pulled heavily from legitimate sources), are observational and conversational. At the end of the day – opinions all around. I think they’re right though so…

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Part One:

Violent Word Examples -> (see intro) BITE the BULLET. SHOOT someone down. That’s a KILLER look. EXECUTE plans. BOMB the presentation. Riding SHOTGUN. Racking up KILLS in volleyball. SUDDEN DEATH in sports. Got SLAPPED around in a meeting. She’s a real PISTOL. Get away with MURDER. Show off your GUNS. Does it seem like too much yet? Can you think of any more?

Sexuality Destroying Word Examples -> I’d TAP that. She looks BANGIN. He’s a STUD. She looks CHEAP. He looks EASY. These girls are my BITCHES. Stop being such a SLUT. HOES before bros. Gosh, he’s such a MAN-WHORE. Totally wanna NAIL her. We’re so SCREWED. This SUCKS. That skirt shouts “RAPE ME.” Really TOOK ONE UP THE ASS. FUCK you. You’re such an ASSHOLE. You might think some of these need more explanation – but I promise if you think about it you will understand how each of these words devalues sex and sexuality. And I am not going to even approach language that victim-blames – that’s for another time.

Historically Ignorant Word Examples -> Laughter from the PEANUT GALLERY. (Where  American slaves, who picked peanuts, were permitted to observe theater) That’s so GHETTO. (Ever been there? Lived there? Is it a place or a style? Do you even know what you’re saying?) Hey BOY. (Don’t even want to go here, but seriously – you know the situation in which people use this term… wrongly.) I have ORIENTAL friends. NO CAN DO. (That phrase was used by early Americans to mock Chinese workers.) COLORED people. MULATTO kids. The N word. (If you are unaware of the history of these words – do some research, and you’ll never use them again. Start here: http://www.apa.org/monitor/2009/02/microaggression.aspx)

Culturally Ignorant Word Examples -> I thought you were STRAIGHT? (Implying anyone else is crooked? Bent? Broken?) Is he the BABY DADDY? (Because it’s great to label people with breeding terms?) Hey MA! (Um, unless you’re talking to your mom… No.) You OD. (An obvious drug reference, apparently this is a common kid phrase for over-doing it) WERE YOU BORN HERE? (The perfect question to insult someone you think isn’t American enough) Do you SPEAK ENGLISH? (Because there’s judgement waiting if you don’t.) That’s RETARDED. (First off – No. Secondly, how degrading.) Gosh, I feel like WHITE TRASH. Ew, THRIFT STORES are so SLUMMY.

There are so many more phrases to explore, but let’s leave it there and hope the curtain has been lifted. If possible, begin to recognize parts of your speech that might need to be worked on going forward..

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Part Two:

Now that I’ve provided a brief list of destructive terminology, we need to address the ways in which words like this can hurt people. Most of this will make sense, so it shouldn’t take too long!

Language as Abuse. It is extremely common for abusive relationships to be foreshadowed with a decline in respectful language. As the terms become more degrading, the relationship degrades and the humanity of both people is degraded. IT IS ABUSE to be in a relationship where verbal communication is destructive. IT IS ABUSE to be called horrific names and belittled constantly. Words can be used to emotionally, psychologically, and sexually erase someone. Read more here: http://stoprelationshipabuse.org/educated/types-of-abuse/

Re-exposing to Trauma. Imagine for a second that you are emerging from an abusive relationship. Perhaps you are struggling to recover from a drug addiction.Maybe you once found yourself in a situation where a weapon was used against you. Or experiencing family fallout for coming out. Now imagine the people around you casually toss around words like BEAT, PUNCH, OD, SHOOT, PISTOL, STRAIGHT, and on and on. Triggers are different for every person who has experienced trauma – thus the warning at the top of this blog. Sometimes it only takes one word or one instance to toss someone ten steps back down their path to healing. If all it takes is a conscious decision on our part to help others – why would we not do it?

Reinforcing Negative Images. Ever wonder why people who struggle with mental health issues try to keep them secret? Or why young people struggling to understand their sexuality don’t open up about it? Or why we continue to shame women for being as open about their sex lives as men are? It is in large part because our language and our culture is shaped around reinforcing those ideas – sometimes without even meaning to (and sometimes intentionally). A coworker overhears someone talking about the “instability of people with depression,” and decides not to open up about her daily hardship. A son overhears his mother talking about “how weird that gay kid is at school,” and decides there must be something wrong with himself. A woman in a domestic violence shelter hears a staff member talk casually about “getting slapped around,” and decides to keep her trauma to herself. Words have power.

Destroying Chances for Community. It is an unfortunate reality of this world that we judge one another during first-time meetings. A key part of these first impressions, is listening to the language that we use in casual conversation. For example, imagine being a fourth-generation Asian American kid – born and raised right here – and having the first question from a stranger at school be: “So where are you from?” Or, imagine entering a new place of work as a transgender man, and over-hearing a coworker’s conversation about how “those trans people are sick in the head.” These are pretty specific I know, so let’s try a simpler one. Imagine you are the parent of a young woman who has been raped, and you overhear a friend talking about how slutty certain outfits are. Or a veteran who struggles with PTSD and flinches at the use of the word BOMB or SHOOT. Our language, and silly use of words that can be loaded with meaning, can sometimes destroy our chances at building community, establishing relationships, and supporting one another.

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Part Three:

Thanks for sticking with me! You’re doing great and I am almost finished! Two quick suggestions on how to respond to this blog, and then you can go on to whatever your weekend holds for you!

  1. Make the conscious decision to think before you speak.Many of these words can either be eliminated from our vocabulary or replaced with non-trigger substitutes. For example, get rid of the word STRAIGHT or stop saying things are RETARDED. Don’t SHOOT someone an email, send them one.Ride in the passenger seat instead of SHOTGUN. And did I already mention – there are so many things to JUST STOP SAYING ALTOGETHER.
  2. Spread the word; hold friends accountable; be the force for change. When your kid or your friend says something you recognize to be wrong – tell them. When a coworker routinely uses language that can be destructive – tell them. And don’t just yell at people and expect change. Take the time to explain your reasons. Take the time to help others learn.

Thanks for taking the time to read! We try to be very careful with our language at the HER Shelter, and we hope that maybe we can spread the awareness.

Remember:

“Sticks and stones may break my bones, but words will never hurt me” – not true.

Utterly wrong.

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One thought on “The Power of Words

  1. You have keen insight into the power of words. As I’ve said to many: Words hurt. Words heal. What’s your intention?”

    Great blog.

    Like

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