By Joyce Clapp
In an online forum that I frequent, we recently had a disagreement (it happens in large, diverse online communities). The forum is for people in married-like relationships, however the community member defines “married-like”. However, this particular community is very heavily female skewed, and people forget that not everyone in the community is a biological woman legally married to a biological man. One of the moderators posted, reminding us to use inclusive languages in posts (such as significant other). Referring to your SO however you liked is fine, but we’re asked to not display assumptions through our language about other people’s relationships.
As someone who lives with my partner of eight years (and my partner’s mother, and our three cats), I appreciated the reminder, but didn’t think too much of it. Inclusive language is easy and just makes sense, right?
Apparently not, for the post is at 763 comments of discussion.
In another online forum, people were discussing the difference between e-books and paper books. However, they were referring to paper books as “real books”. When I commented on it, my best friend said “Oh, you know what they’re talking about.” I may, but that doesn’t stop people’s words from downplaying the growing prominence of e-books in our society. Intentional or not, that is the meaning that comes through when calling paper books “real”.
Words are so important. Words are symbols that carry weight in our society. Language is a one of the few tools we use every day (every minute!) Because language is so common and so necessary in our lives, our culture is simultaneously dependent upon our language, and yet, doesn’t encourage treating that language as important. People will say “I get so tired of having to be PC!” That statement reveals something about the importance we put on how the people around us feel and the care we put (or don’t) into our interactions. Our language and our choice of words communicates (consciously or not) information about our political beliefs, how we feel about the people around us, our educational levels, how we use that education, and how much we respect ourselves and our environments (and that’s just the start of what our language says).
As students, instructors, and other professionals in an online environment, they’re not “just words”. They’re all we have to convey our knowledge and our intentions. I often find myself typing “I think I know what you meant here, but I can’t grade you on what I think you meant – I have to grade you on what’s here.” Over time in a variety of online educational settings, I’ve found myself adjudicating disputes in discussion boards between well meaning parties who didn’t chose their words well. Words matter.
I call on you to be deliberate in both your written and spoken language, to use words well, and to be kind in your communications with other people. The next time you start to say “Oh, it’s just a word!” ask yourself what that word, as a label, direction, or endearment, might mean to the persons you are communicating with – and then act accordingly.
President Obama’s “Words Don’t Matter” speech from 2008.