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FAR FROM HARMLESS:

How Words Can Damage Relationships and Reputations

Sticks and stones may break my bones, But words will break my heart. Does this sound familiar but also… wrong? It’s my version of this English language children’s rhyme from the mid 1800’s. 'Sticks and stones may break my bones But words will never hurt me.' As a girl who wore glasses from the age of six and was teased about having ‘four eyes’, I know that words can indeed hurt.

Words can break hearts, ruin relationships and damage businesses. The wrong words can have consequences that last longer and reverberate further than physical damage. And much of the time, we don’t realise the damage our words are doing because we are unaware of the unconscious bias that shapes our language. We believe, without even articulating it, that the way we speak is ‘normal’ which, through our own cultural lens, may appear to be the case. However, words frame our experiences and establish norms for others that may not actually be their normal. Words carry assumptions about gender, sexual orientation, ethnicity and racial identity, disabilities and age. Words can suggest that one experience is the norm whilst the other is the exception.

It must be said that there is a greater awareness of gendered language these days and for many people a greater awareness of how to adjust to counteract it. What is less obvious is language that marginalizes other groups of people. For example, expressing surprise when a person of Asian descent is not good at math because -

'I thought all Asians are good at math' Or skepticism on being told of a person’s Aboriginality because -

‘He doesn’t look Aboriginal.’ Or a new technology tool so easy to use that,

‘Even my grandma could do it.’

Words like

businessman fireman

chairman

C U L T U R A L

Or the use of a gendered pronoun with a role that is gender-neutral. For example, ‘When you next see a doctor make sure to tell him about your headaches.’ By assigning the male pronoun, we are reinforcing the male as the norm and the female as the exception in this role.The problem with gendered language, or any language that expresses bias, is that the groups of people not represented are then given less opportunity to envisage themselves in those roles, that situation, that future.

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Once again, this sort of language presents assumptions about others that reinforce stereotypes and could work to limit opportunities for particular groups of people.

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Profile for Tanya Finnie

Cultural Times Edition 2 July 2019  

A magazine for managers and aspiring leaders around the globe. The magazine contains practical and inspiring articles on all things cultural...

Cultural Times Edition 2 July 2019  

A magazine for managers and aspiring leaders around the globe. The magazine contains practical and inspiring articles on all things cultural...