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Why language is important

By Heather Lansdowne - 2 April 2015 11

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A few weeks ago I wrote an article on how not to talk to women in the workplace. The piece garnered some interesting comments, some of which I’d like to address today.

The first issue I’d like to discuss is the recurring idea that language is not as important as behaviour. In other words, it’s not what you say, it’s what you do, that matters. I get the sentiment behind this statement, and on the surface it makes logical sense. But I also think that language and behaviour are actually inextricably intertwined.

In my experience, people who use certain language often exhibit corresponding behaviour. For example, I’ve previously worked with a person who almost always referred to groups of employees based on their gender, and also just happened to separate work that way as well. There was one particular physical task that would come up from time to time, and this manager would recruit every male in the office to help, and exactly none of the females. The task was physical but by no means beyond the capabilities of any of the females in the office. This was always irritating to me, but also to the men who were forced to spend twice as long on the task because this manager was only using half of the staff available to them.

Is it possible that this principal can also be applied to gender roles? When groups of people are constantly referred to based on gender, does it not reinforce the idea that differences between the genders are the most important thing?

And when groups or individuals are referred to as girls or ladies, is it possible that we perform in line with the connotations attached to those words? In today’s society, being a female is seen as being comparatively weak, emotional and inferior to a male. Why is the phrase “you run like a girl” seen as an insult? There should be nothing intrinsically insulting about that statement, but the connotations with being female suggest that this means you are slow and weak.

This phenomenon, known as stereotype threat, can be seen in this study which showed that female chess players performed worse in games of internet chess when they were told they were playing a male. When falsely informed they were playing a female, their performance increased to a level equal to that of their male counterparts.

This is why I have an obvious problem with phrases like “don’t be such a girl”, because they perpetuate the harmful stereotype that females are, by definition, weak. And we internalise that stereotype, which in turn negatively affects our performance.

In contrast, having male traits is often seen as advantageous, as in the phrases “grow some balls”, “man up” etc, which actually creates positive effects on performance, known as stereotype boost.

Lastly, some commenters made the assertion that you don’t get to decide what other people find offensive, especially if those people are from a disadvantaged subset of society. That is one idea that I whole-heartedly agree with.

You would never say the “N word” to a person of colour, or argue with why they might find that term offensive. For a while it was fashionable to use the word “Jew” as a slur (I think this may have originated from South Park?), and I think most people would agree that’s pretty messed up.

So why argue when women say they don’t want to be constantly referred to based on gender? You may not have experience with what that feels like, or with gender imbalance in your life or workplace, but why does that need to lessen my experience?

In the same way, some years ago I realised that it wasn’t cool to use the term “gay” as a synonym for “bad”. I lot of people I knew used the term and a lot of people still do. Most of us aren’t consciously homophobic, but I think using a word like this as a negative descriptor is bound to have negative consequences for people within the LGBTQIA community. Similarly, “retarded” is a word that is used far too often to mean stupid or incompetent. I know that this is offensive to people with different mental abilities, and I think it’s incredibly important to consider the use of such terms in our everyday speech patterns.

Yes, it’s inconvenient to have to change the way you speak to reflect more tolerant beliefs. Does that mean it’s not worth it? In my opinion, making people from all parts of society feel comfortable, supported and safe as they go about their everyday lives is always worth it.

What’s Your opinion?


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11 Responses to
Why language is important
Morelia 11:55 am 04 Apr 15

Well written Heather, and I’m glad you re-ignited the discussion, specifically with a leaning towards the effects language has on behaviour and psychology.

Here’s an interesting article about a study on the effects of gendered language on gender equality.
http://www.livescience.com/18574-gendered-grammar-sex-inequality.html

And here’s a great article that maps out a lot of the responses from Heather’s original thread:
http://www.cracked.com/blog/8-a242423oles-who-show-up-every-time-word-feminism-used/

Rubaiyat; I just read a response from you in the original thread that I’d like to respond to:

“And by the same logic when I say I have a girlfriend/wife it declares me “already owned by another female”. Which seems to spur some women on, as it declares me to be an already broken-in, desirable mate.”

I don’t see how this invalidates my point that perceived “ownership” by a male mate is more respected than a woman’s own agency in saying she’s not interested.

“It seems to me you have taken a course that has given you startlingly ‘new’ thoughts you never had.

I noticed quite a lot of students at university who were being challenged to think for themselves for the first time in their lives and find themselves in the absence of anything else, latching onto anything said with absolute conviction. Merely showing that previous ideas are flawed does not guarantee any proposed alternatives are not equally flawed. This is not a matter of barracking for the home team.”

Are you trolling me? If so, congratulations; your condescending ad-hominem reductionism is testing my buddha-like poise. Allow me to retort; your rhetoric drips with the insecurity and defensiveness of the privileged man who knows his tinfoil throne rests on a foundation of sand.
…………………………….

Run like a girl. Drive like a girl. Fight like a girl. Do X like a fag. That’s so gay.
The point of these phrases is to insult. And the insult is predicated on the comparison being insulting. The upshot is that to *be* a girl, or a fag, is clearly undesirable and lesser. Otherwise they would be ineffective as insults.
Run like a man. Drive like a man. Fight like a man. See the difference?

I’d be interested to further see ideas about the feminine and masculine in language as relates to subject and object in sentence structure, and what effect, if any, this has.

Maya123;
I didn’t disclose my gender in the original thread, but your post makes me want to do so here.
Not because of Not All Males (never all!). (I’m so familiar with that particular response.)
But simply to say that in this white, privileged male, you have an ally. If more of us took the time to look inside and decide what sort of man we want to be, instead of clutching the crown and insisting that it’s earned, perhaps things would move a bit faster. After all, the best way to stop sexism is to stop being sexist.

rubaiyat 11:25 pm 03 Apr 15

Maya123 said :

I have had a male boss say to me that I am lucky he is so broad minded that he lets me do the same job as the males. If he thinks this, or feels the need to bring this up, he is not very broad minded. Males in our work place never had to experience comments such as this.

He sounds like an idiot, and probably has said equally stupid things to the say to the males but different. Are you present on all occassions that you boss has spoken to everyone else?

Have you had an over the top boss actually get physical and start shoving and pushing or even take a swing? That is what men have to put up with and I have yet to see the most unreconstructed male boss do that to a woman.

As to the “Tent Pegs Incident of ’97” apply some wit and start offering faint praise to your boss in return. Doesn’t sound like much of a job if they can’t afford more durable office space. Are you working for a Circus? The usual give away is the car pool with 20 clowns in the tiny car. 😉

Testfest 11:46 am 03 Apr 15

Maya123 said :

Testfield says that “you run like a girl” is not a good example. It IS a VERY GOOD example. It is used as a huge insult; meaning that females don’t cut it. As the base of that it has nothing to do with running, but life in general. Anyone who thinks this means literally running, doesn’t have a clue.

I totally disagree. I have had the phrases “you run like a girl” or “you throw like a girl” directed towards me on a number of occasions, but always immediately after I had run or thrown something. So that’s why I believe that these two specific phrases literally do refer to running or throwing.

The phrase “don’t be such a girl” is a much better example of what you are talking about, as that is an insult based on the belief that females are inferior and can’t cut it in general.

Maya123 said :

Now, I predict that males (never all) will continue now to argue with me and against other females who bring up these points, as they continue to not get it.

It’s an opinion piece on a public website. If you don’t want to hear any opinions that might contradict your worldview, you better go back to the feminist echo chambers of the Daily Life, Jezebel, and Feministing.

chewy14 8:49 pm 02 Apr 15

Maya123 said :

Sigh! Here we go again! A female will make a point. Other females will agree with her, as they get it. Meanwhile, males will try to bring her argument down. So sad; that some just don’t get it and the opinion on this will be so gender split, by those that experience it (females mostly, and get it) and those that don’t experience it (mostly males, who then refuse to accept there is a problem).
Very good argument. I agree with almost all of it.
Testfield says that “you run like a girl” is not a good example. It IS a VERY GOOD example. It is used as a huge insult; meaning that females don’t cut it. As the base of that it has nothing to do with running, but life in general. Anyone who thinks this means literally running, doesn’t have a clue.
Now, I predict that males (never all) will continue now to argue with me and against other females who bring up these points, as they continue to not get it.
As for the physical task, I have come up against that in both work situations and other. I have always had to prove myself; whereas a male (despite their age or fitness compared to me, have never had to.) It’s gets very ‘tiring’ to always have to prove oneself, and then when you have, to have to suffer faint praise, such as, (in this example competently hammering in tent pegs, after the males (particularly one) didn’t think I should even pick up the mallet) “You have the strongest wrists I have seen on a female. My wife couldn’t do that.” Really, do you know this, or do you just presume? And “wrist strength”!!
I have had a male boss say to me that I am lucky he is so broad minded that he lets me do the same job as the males. If he thinks this, or feels the need to bring this up, he is not very broad minded. Males in our work place never had to experience comments such as this.

Everything I say is correct, and if you disagree with me you just don’t get it and are proving my point.

I truly love these discussions and the free exchange of logical points and ideas that occur.

rubaiyat 6:13 pm 02 Apr 15

Maya123 said :

Sigh! Here we go again! A female will make a point. Other females will agree with her, as they get it. Meanwhile, males will try to bring her argument down. So sad; that some just don’t get it and the opinion on this will be so gender split, by those that experience it (females mostly, and get it) and those that don’t experience it (mostly males, who then refuse to accept there is a problem).
Very good argument. I agree with almost all of it.
Testfield says that “you run like a girl” is not a good example. It IS a VERY GOOD example. It is used as a huge insult; meaning that females don’t cut it. As the base of that it has nothing to do with running, but life in general. Anyone who thinks this means literally running, doesn’t have a clue.
Now, I predict that males (never all) will continue now to argue with me and against other females who bring up these points, as they continue to not get it.
As for the physical task, I have come up against that in both work situations and other. I have always had to prove myself; whereas a male (despite their age or fitness compared to me, have never had to.) It’s gets very ‘tiring’ to always have to prove oneself, and then when you have, to have to suffer faint praise, such as, (in this example competently hammering in tent pegs, after the males (particularly one) didn’t think I should even pick up the mallet) “You have the strongest wrists I have seen on a female. My wife couldn’t do that.” Really, do you know this, or do you just presume? And “wrist strength”!!
I have had a male boss say to me that I am lucky he is so broad minded that he lets me do the same job as the males. If he thinks this, or feels the need to bring this up, he is not very broad minded. Males in our work place never had to experience comments such as this.

Single point perspective is not unique to males.

I used to work in an industry dominated by women and they have their own silly attitudes and annoying things they say to men.

All of which is not denying what you are saying, just broadening the perspective.

When I open a door and step aside for someone else to go through, usually a woman but not always, and get treated like I am the doorman and get ignored without often a thank you, that is an object lesson.

Equally women have to get that they have to take what they want not eternally ask everyone else in competitive situations to cut a slice for them and have it served on a plate. Peter Costello failed to grow a pair and never made Prime Minister because he made the same mistake.

Julia Gillard should have given Abbott what was coming to him, a lot sooner and she would have got the respect she needed from everyone.

Margaret Thatcher kept her male ministers on a tight leash and her female ministers on a very short list. See if you can spot them here:

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_Thatcher_ministers_1979–90

The climb to the top is tough and rarely carpeted except for those born with a few billion falling out of their back pocket, like Gina Reinhardt.

Maya123 5:27 pm 02 Apr 15

Sigh! Here we go again! A female will make a point. Other females will agree with her, as they get it. Meanwhile, males will try to bring her argument down. So sad; that some just don’t get it and the opinion on this will be so gender split, by those that experience it (females mostly, and get it) and those that don’t experience it (mostly males, who then refuse to accept there is a problem).
Very good argument. I agree with almost all of it.
Testfield says that “you run like a girl” is not a good example. It IS a VERY GOOD example. It is used as a huge insult; meaning that females don’t cut it. As the base of that it has nothing to do with running, but life in general. Anyone who thinks this means literally running, doesn’t have a clue.
Now, I predict that males (never all) will continue now to argue with me and against other females who bring up these points, as they continue to not get it.
As for the physical task, I have come up against that in both work situations and other. I have always had to prove myself; whereas a male (despite their age or fitness compared to me, have never had to.) It’s gets very ‘tiring’ to always have to prove oneself, and then when you have, to have to suffer faint praise, such as, (in this example competently hammering in tent pegs, after the males (particularly one) didn’t think I should even pick up the mallet) “You have the strongest wrists I have seen on a female. My wife couldn’t do that.” Really, do you know this, or do you just presume? And “wrist strength”!!
I have had a male boss say to me that I am lucky he is so broad minded that he lets me do the same job as the males. If he thinks this, or feels the need to bring this up, he is not very broad minded. Males in our work place never had to experience comments such as this.

Milly Withers 3:47 pm 02 Apr 15

The study about the black students’ test performance when asked to state their race is really interesting. I wonder if the same would happen with women if they were asked to state their gender before performing typically ‘male’ tasks like reading maps, or for men performing a stereotypically ‘female’ task.

Completely agree that you can’t decide what other people find offensive and not offensive. Really enjoyed this article, Heather. Keep them coming!

rubaiyat 2:30 pm 02 Apr 15

You bring to mind when I played tennis in High School.

A male teacher challenged one of the girls, who was currently NSW junior female champion to a match. I watched as she politely let him win the occassional point.

Also my squash coach, despite the fact that she was by then a little overweight would park herself in the middle of the court and make me run myself to exhaustion, whilst she barely moved.

Testfest 2:16 pm 02 Apr 15

Lesson learned – don’t use quote tags for the original post. Let me try this again:

I would agree with you that language and behaviour are often linked – but NOT inextricably or they never would have invented the saying “do as I say, not as I do”. I’m also not convinced by all of your examples…

“There was one particular physical task that would come up from time to time, and this manager would recruit every male in the office to help, and exactly none of the females. The task was physical but by no means beyond the capabilities of any of the females in the office. This was always irritating to me, but also to the men who were forced to spend twice as long on the task because this manager was only using half of the staff available to them.”

I’m curious, why didn’t you (and all the other women) volunteer to assist with this physical task to help out your male colleagues? Did the manager forbid it? If I was one of those males then I would not have been impressed with that manager either.

“Why is the phrase “you run like a girl” seen as an insult? There should be nothing intrinsically insulting about that statement, but the connotations with being female suggest that this means you are slow and weak.”

Not a good example. Pick any sport that involves running, compare the speed of the male participants to the female participants. Who is faster and stronger? I’m not just talking about elite athletes either.

When it comes to running, are you talking about sprints? Or long distance?

When it comes to sprinting (assuming a similar age and BMI), nine times out of ten I will be backing the man to win. If it’s a long distance race where fitness is more important than bursts of speed, then all bets are off.

“”In contrast, having male traits is often seen as advantageous, as in the phrases “grow some balls”, “man up” etc, which actually creates positive effects on performance, known as stereotype boost.””

It creates positive effects on performance? Says who? I freaking hate those sayings. They are almost always used by someone who is trying to shame me into doing something I don’t particularly want to do.

I totally agree that you should avoid any slurs involving a person’s ethnicity / gender / sexuality / religion. My rule is to only criticise the things people choose to say or do… and if it’s in the workplace you are probably better off just keeping your mouth shut completely.

rubaiyat 1:20 pm 02 Apr 15

Here is a longer treatise on how not to be told that you have been fired:

http://quezi.com/9687

How has that actually changed people’s behaviour?

I suppose it gives the sacker time to bundle you out the door whilst you are still trying to work out what was said.

rubaiyat 1:10 pm 02 Apr 15

Language is for communication.

Swapping one word for another only conceals its real meaning, usually, as with all lies, to pull one over on someone to dim to notice.

eg Sacking people becomes downsizing, let go, involuntary separation, workforce imbalance correction, decruit, lateralize, waive, constructive discharge, career alternative enhancement, free up for the future, regaining a life, career alternative enhancement, career change opportunity, career transition, constructive discharge, constructive dismissal, decline a contract extension, decruit, defund, dehire, de-select, destaff, discharge, discontinue etc

You don’t kill people you terminate them, you don’t slaughter people they are just collateral damage.

None of these conceal what has really happened to the victims, but all of them let those responsible pretend that what they are doing is not bad.

Euphemisms rapidly regain the meaning of the word they try to cover up, and have to be in turn substituted again. A self defeating process. Your example of “gay” is a classic example. Gay was a substitute for homosexual which in turn was a 19th century substitute for whatever word preceeded it.

We’ve been through the whole horrible tagging of “challenged” onto everything that could be vaguely seen to be negative.

I pointed out previously that the polite forms of “you” in both German and Italian are actually “she”, for all sexes. Has this emasculated all men? Has this made either society in the hundreds of years this term was used more equal or matriarchal?

There was a total load of tripe circulating around in the 70’s that Russian grammar didn’t allow lying! The gullible never ever, see the fatal flaw in such myths.

Word swapping is a substitute for real action, the favorite passtime of Public Servants, or is just camouflage for bad actions. What you are proposing is no different than Orwellian NewSpeak.

All it does is stuff up any attempts at clear speech, because that IS the intention.

Better you understand unambiguously what your opponent is saying, than sweep it under the carpet.

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