As a teen, I learned I was unknowingly saying something racist. I was using the word “gypped” to indicate that someone had swindled me. I thought that was just part of everyday speech and hadn’t made any connection to the word Gypsy. When I realize what I was saying, it was a clear example of something I needed to immediately remove from my vocabulary.
Perhaps on the other side of the scale, a friend with epilepsy once told me that the word “brainstorming” was offensive. My immediate (violent) thought was that this was ridiculous. The act of discussion to produce ideas or solve problems, known as brainstorming, is not a derogatory statement about people with epilepsy. It’s a positive act and one has nothing to do with the other. Or so I thought.
If we go back to 1934, it turns out that brainstorming means, “a violent, transient mental derangement manifested in a maniacal outburst; popularly, any transitory agitation or confusion of mind”. However, over the years, its meaning has dramatically changed and, as far as I know, it no longer has that association in mainstream culture.
So, is brainstorming a word to remove from our vocabularies or not? Is this taking things too far? Because of my interest in speaking consciously, I’m personally playing it safe. Just because I think that phrases “shouldn’t” cause harm doesn’t mean that I’m right or that it isn’t insensitive to use.
Another source of inspiration was a forum post from a software developer who was complaining about how he won a contract, and then they presented him with a large document of violent terms that he was not allowed to use. In fact, he would be fined every time he used them. My immediate (and again violent) thought was that the client changed the scope of the contract, so he should charge them more to pay for him to hire a compliancy checker!
What kinds of words were they banning from their communications? Things like, “Shoot me an email” instead of “Send me an email”, “Take a stab at it” instead of “Give it a try”, and compliments like, “You’re killing it today!” It also included phrases that were considered violent in other ways, like saying “You guys” instead of something gender inclusive.
While it took a bit to sink in, that forum post opened my eyes to how violent our language sometimes is and how unpleasant it can be to be surrounded by phrases like that, especially for those who are recovering from trauma.
These examples got me to really consider how I use language. Decades after learning the origins of “gypped”, I’m still occasionally finding and removing violent words and phases from my vocabulary, and I still find myself occasionally slipping into old patterns, like noticing myself refer to a group of people as “you guys”. By being conscious of what I say, I usually notice these and quickly apologize in NVC style and rephrase what I was saying.
It’s often right after I say something that I realize potential implications. When I got more involved with the NVC community, I said several times that I felt I had found my tribe. Each time I said it, I became a bit more suspicious of that term. Is it being culturally insensitive to use it? After some googling, I decided to stop saying it. For me, this is part of what speaking consciously is about – listening and evaluating what I’m saying and improving over time.
The most recent phrase I’ve removed from my vocabulary is a very common consideration used in Nonviolent Communication meetings. It turns out that by giving people a “trigger warning” about upcoming content, we may actually be making things worse and being a stimulus for the anxiety we were trying to avoid! According to the study published in Clinical Psychological Science, the phrase can also “overemphasize how important trauma should be in a person’s life”.
In my quest to speak as consciously and nonviolently as possible, finding these sorts of everyday violent words and phrases in my lexicon is always a delight in learning and changing combined with some sadness that I learned to use these phrases in the first place. I long for a world where we all speak more consciously with each other.
If you’re interested in learning more of these phrases, the students and staff of PARC (Prevention, Advocacy & Resource Center) at Brandeis University have compiled some terms that can be used to “perpetrate and perpetuate violence and oppression” with the mission, “as a community, we can strive to remove language that may hurt those who have experienced violence from our everyday use.”
And, here’s another interesting list of “20 things you’re saying that you didn’t know were offensive“.