We communicate in one of two ways: body language and speech.
Movement, or body language, is a less conscious act than speech. Of course we can consciously move our muscles and limbs, but when we’re communicating, our body language is on auto-pilot. We’re more aware of our speech — of what we’re saying and how we’re saying it.
But even though we have more control over our speech, we still say things that offend people, history, and the meaning of words. We don’t mean to; most of us are just lazy and don’t know any better. For instance, we call women “guys” when speaking in the plural, and we call people from the United States “Americans” even though they only represent one part of the Americas.
At the beginning of 2017, I was conscious of how I referred to groups of people when women and people from different backgrounds were present. I said What do you all think? instead of What do you guys think?. I was also very conscious about how I referred to myself. When living in Argentina and Brazil, I said I’m from the United States instead of I’m American, or My friend is from the United States instead of He’s American.
Some people appreciated my conscious effort, but most were apathetic. This led to me abandoning conscious speech. I was using more words but there was only an occasional payoff. Looking back, this payoff was worth it though. It made people smile. They appreciated what I was doing.
When I was in Brazil, outside of a club getting some air, I struck up a conversation with a dude and his cousin. The dude asked me if I was American. I told him we’re all American. His cousin really appreciated this. It made her smile and we connected on a deeper level than new acquaintances usually do.
So while most people are apathetic to my efforts, they do matter. Language is how we share ideas across aisles and borders. It helps us remember things. It helps us remember people, what they do, and how they impact our lives. It helps us make sense of the life we live, with all of its beauty and complexity.
The point is: words matter. By speaking unconsciously and lazily, we cripple our chances of evolving out of the archaic confines of sexism, bias, and apathy.
I have to remember why words are important.
We all do.
What woke me up
A few months ago, I was on a conference call about an open source project I was contributing to. There were two
girls women and two men on the call, including me.
Throughout the call, I kept saying things like How are you guys doing? and What do you guys think?. Toward the end of the call, one of the
girls women said she was sick of the tech industry and that she wanted to get out.
“Just hearing you say ‘guys’ this whole time is one of the reasons I’m leaving this field. It’s so sexist,” she said.
I was surprised. This was the first time we had talked to each other. Couldn’t she have cut me some slack? Or emailed me individually? Or vented in a way that didn’t group me with perverts who grope and wink and whistle?
After the call, I told some friends and family about this, adding how I couldn’t stand feminists. I chatted with my female friends, wanting them to support my frustration.
And they did…
“I say ‘guys’ all the time,” they said. “I don’t even think about it.” And my mom said, “Did you tell her it’s just a Pittsburgh colloquialism?” (I really liked this last one at the time. Thanks for the support, mom.)
After this feedback, I had all of the justification I needed to think “guys” was okay to say and the
girl woman on the conference call was overly sensitive. I was satisfied with this for a few days. But after some time, I returned to her point of frustration.
Update: In the original version of this post, I referred to the women on the conference call as “girls” without referring to the men as “boys.” This was pointed out to me by my friend Michelle. “No one would ever refer to a male participant in a meeting as a ‘boy,'” she said, “so why would an adult woman be referred to as a girl?
“It’s all part of a deeply ingrained lexicon that has sexist and undermining tones. Calling a woman a “girl,” especially in a professional setting, works to discount and discredit her ideas and professional reputation. I’m not at all accusing you of consciously attempting to belittle her because of her gender, but therein lies the exact point of your post.”
Why I decided to speak consciously
girl woman on the call was a nice person. She was dedicating her time to an open source project when she didn’t need to. She was helping me learn about the open source project I was new to. (The strikethroughs will make sense in a minute.)
It must have been hard for her to say that she was irritated with my manner of speech, even in her moment of frustration. Or if it wasn’t hard, what followed up to that point was hard. She may have been treated poorly by men in the workspace. I have seen this firsthand before. Men’s sexist gestures are often subtle, but over time they add up into perversion and harassment.
Whatever her history is, her frustration matters, because what bothers one person bothers others.
Sure, there will always be things that bother people, but these things shouldn’t offend someone’s identity. In a near-utopia, we would only be bothered by minor inconveniences — like how our space cabin is one degree cooler than usual or how our holographic “smartphone” is glitching and staying in 2D.
An example of unconscious speech
In addition to the hypocrisy exercised by me in the original version of this post — referring to women as “girls” without referring to men as “boys” — consider a woman in a feminist parade…
Leading the crowd, she’s raising a picket-poster sign that says EQUAL RIGHTS FOR ALL as she marches down the street. Meanwhile, she’s shouting to her female supporters, Come on guys! This is the most important time of our lives!
It’s not her fault though.
We have a language problem.
Want to help fix it?
Start speaking consciously.
Conscious speech requires awareness
After reading this post, my friend Melissa recommended this book to me: Drunk Tank Pink: And Other Unexpected Forces that Shape How We Think, Feel, and Behave.
Backed by science, the author explores how we’re unconsciously shaped by our environment and offers ways to practice awareness and independence.