Image courtesy of Steven Mileham
I hate shopping. If I was to describe my experience as a shopper, for clothes especially, it would best be summed up in one word: survival. I am not one to go from shop to shop to find the best deal. As a result, I’m not terribly picky. If the clothes generally fit and they don’t clash too badly, I’ll get them. Therefore, my closet is a terrible mishmash of things that don’t necessarily go together, but I try to make it work. This shirt is blue, these pants have blue in them, and this tie is greyish-blue so they must go together. I have gotten pretty good at finding combinations that ‘work’ and I just grab those ‘sets’ in the morning. No wasting time checking to see if something else might work better. It’s “good enough”.
I sometimes wonder if we are like that with words. We grab stock phrases and throw them together as collocation ‘sets’. They are “good enough” for what we need to accomplish. We rarely stop to think about what we are saying and how it may be interpreted. It often takes someone bold enough to speak up to help us better understand the consequences of our words.
In my generation, I’ve seen a shift towards political correctness to the point that it has become the brunt of many jokes. I believe there is a real need to think through the words we choose, but when we force it upon others, there is often the opposite response than that which we would desire. People need to make these words their own; they need to embrace the change for intrinsic reasons, not just because they are pressured to conform. By simply telling people not to do something without showing the deeper reasons why, the changes will only be surface deep.
An example that stood out to me this week was an internal document from General Motors (GM) leaked to the media. In it, there is a list that GM says contains “speculations, opinions, vague non descriptive words, or words with emotional connotations.” These words should not be used by service personnel when describing what is wrong with a vehicle or a part. GM suggest using words that “contain only engineering results, facts, and judgments”. Of course, the media is running with the story that GM must be muzzling their workers as part of a PR spin. Maybe that is true, but I can’t help thinking that GM is correct. The use of speculative, opinionated language is not helpful and should be avoided in situations like this. The problem is that GM failed to demonstrate why these words are not very helpful. Consequently, people feel muzzled and we end up with headlines like the one we see from Time Magazine: These Are The 69 Words GM Employees Were Forbidden from Using (emphasis added). Were they forbidden? According to the GM document, the list of words were examples of vocabulary that was speculative and vague. It was never meant to be a list of forbidden words.
Last weekend, I was at the TESL Canada conference in Regina and I had the opportunity to sit in on a workshop by Suresh Canagarajah on translingual writing. It was a fascinating session and I am still in the midst of unpacking all that was said in that time together. One of the examples he had us look at and discuss came from an essay by a Chinese Malaysian student in an ESL classroom*. In it, the student used the phrase “can able to” along with the ‘correct’ usage of the modals can and may. This phrase was confusing to the instructor since it appeared that the student understood the grammatical usage of modals, but seemed to have deliberately chosen this phrase to be used in certain situations. The teacher inquired and found that the student had used her English dictionary to find two modals that when combined together created a new meaning that she felt was missing from English. Her understanding of may as “to gain permission” and “be able to” to mean ability could come together to mean “ability from the perspective of the external circumstances”. To this student, the individualistic societies that are dominate in cultures that use English is missing a phrase that gives permission within the group to do something on behalf of the group. It could be done with a lot of rewording, but this phrase seemed to work for her. It was the ability of this student to stand outside of the culture of the language that gave her the insight to see how incredibly individualistic that English had become. She carefully chose these words and the result is that myself along with others are left to think about our own language and the cultural baggage that is carried with it.
I don’t know if it is intentional or not, but some of the words and phrases that are being used by teachers and other educators contradict the information they are sharing. Teachers may be talking about being more open to student differences and becoming more aware of the need to think of students as part of the learning process, but the vocabulary being used shows a side that keeps the teacher in the seat of power and control, doling out punishment to those that don’t conform. Okay, it isn’t that bad, but the words or phrases do make one wonder about the understanding of those that are not adhering to the norm. This is especially true for instructors who have not had the proper training in regards to understanding things such as mental illness or personality differences. I am deliberately not using the phrase or words that I have seen over and over again due to the fact that it may be misinterpreted as a directive much like it did for GM. This isn’t a list of ‘don’t say that’ or ‘you are terrible if you say that’, it is a call to others to stop and consider what it is we say and do that may be interpreted by others as judgemental when that is the opposite of what we are attempting to communicate.
I am working with my EAP students on essay writing and we are spending a good deal of time evaluating sources and evidence. I am attempting to do my best to not influence their decisions, but I know that some of them have never done this in their own culture and I want to help them see how easily data can be misinterpreted or twisted to fit a certain group’s agenda. One student was struggling with the word ‘misconception’ in a summary. I mentioned that it is a emotive word that really can only be taken negatively and asked them to choose a word that didn’t add their own opinion to what the author was stating. To this student, they couldn’t understand why this was ‘adding’ to what the author was saying since this student was certain that the writer would agree with them. For those who are not familiar with the nuances of the language, this can be really difficult to understand just as it would be for us in their culture and language. Providing students with vocabulary without the proper tools to understand the cultural or emotional understanding that drags along with it is not very helpful. We need to help them see the intricacies of the language that can be clues to the reader or the listener to what the author is really trying to communicate. When we don’t take the same amount of care or time as writers to think about these changes, we start to fall into the same trap of failing to be critical in our thinking.
Even in this post, I have likely chosen a few words that tip the meaning in one direction or another, giving you the reader insight into what I was attempting to communicate “between the lines”. Some of that was intentional, some of it done out of naiveté regarding the baggage that comes along with the things I was saying. My hope is that we can become more aware of what we say and how we say it when communicating with others, especially online. It is in this forum of almost faceless communication that words become even more valuable, and potentially dangerous.
* This example is taken directly from the article by Min-Zham Lu “Professing Multiculturalism: The Politics of Style in the Contact Zone”