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May 25, 2021

Language That Divides – #MTtalk Roundup

Yolande Conradie


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©© GettyImages/PamelaJoeMacFarlane

"You cannot say something about something without revealing something about yourself."

Mokokoma Mokhonoana, South African author

Language has always fascinated me. It's something unseen that we use to shape the world. It has the power to overthrow regimes. Words can build or break relationships, and people.

The Power of Language to Divide

I grew up in apartheid-era South Africa. In the white Afrikaans-speaking culture of the time, it was considered respectful for children to address their elders as "uncle" or "auntie," even if they weren't relatives.

A gardener used to come to our house every Saturday. I was very fond of him, and spent hours tagging along in the garden with a set of mini gardening tools to "help" him.

He had endless patience, even though I'm sure I must have been quite a nuisance at times.

One day, I realized that I was allowed to use his first name, even though he was as old as my father. I asked my mother, "Why am I allowed to call him Izak, and not Uncle Izak?"

Of course, it was apartheid South Africa. We were white and Uncle Izak was black. How white people referred to and addressed black people became a primary tool of division. Even a preschool child like I was at the time had the power to (unwittingly) use it against an adult man.

Keeping People Down

Language can divide genders as well as races. For example, referring to women as "the weaker sex" is a phrase designed to keep them "where they belong." In other words, women should not be in positions of power, leadership and influence, but in positions of submission, subservience and dependence.

A man stays "Mister" throughout his adult life. In some cultures, a woman's title changes from "Miss" to "Mrs" when she gets married. Why do we feel the need to address a woman according to her marital status, yet we don't do the same with men?

What does that tell us about the view that society held (and sometimes still holds) of women? Why is there a different word and title for a married woman? It's a distinction of status, implying that a married woman has a different standing in society from that of a single woman.

How Language Can Dehumanize Us

Women also suffer from verbal objectification and degrading language. Assertive or successful women are likened to cattle and dogs. That's active dehumanization, and that's very dangerous territory.

The American author and academic, Brené Brown, said it best: "Violence starts with dehumanization. Dehumanization starts with language."

If we look at how men talk about women, is it any wonder that there's a worldwide pandemic of violence, and specifically domestic violence against women?

In the 1970s and 80s, serial killer Peter Sutcliffe targeted sex workers in northern England. A manhunt ensued, but the case wasn't investigated with the zeal it deserved until, in the words of police, Sutcliffe killed "innocent young girls." In other words, sex workers weren't considered innocent victims. How utterly awful.

Body Language Can Be Divisive

Sadly, mental illness is often stigmatized, not just in words, but in gestures. For example, when someone taps the side of their head to say a person isn't "all there."

There's a subtle difference between saying someone "is bipolar" and someone "has bipolar disorder." The first equates a person with their illness. The second recognizes that the illness is only one aspect of the person.

Language Is No Joking Matter

Some people will justify an offensive or hurtful comment by adding, "I'm just joking," or, "It was just a joke." Such language is designed to make the person on the receiving end feel like they're the one in the wrong, and shouldn't take things "too seriously."

Will it not be to our benefit across the whole world to use language as a tool to unite people, to build peaceful nations, and to foster co-operation? Language, after all, is how we express ideas, do creative problem solving, and build bridges between people.

Maybe it's just me, but I have a feeling that it's going to serve us much better that way.

How Language Divides

During our #MTtalk Twitter chat last Friday, we talked about language that divides. Here are the questions we asked and some of your most insightful responses:

Q1. Why does the language we use matter?

@ColfaxInsurance Language is how we connect and communicate - words, tone, and forms of speech all connect to individuals differently and can be crucial in understanding and building relationships with them.

@LDresslerPlus Language is culture, heritage, status, knowledge, power...

@JKatzaman Language conveys not only basic messages but also nuance. That's really important on social media that doesn't do great with inflections.

Q2. In what ways can our use of language create divisions among us?

@TheToniaKallon Language that is used unkindly, to abuse, or spread hatred creates division. I would also venture that language used without intention or consideration of impact can have a similar effect.

@Midgie_MT It can create divisions between those that understand and those who do not. For example, using lots of acronyms when speaking. For those who do not know what they mean, they could feel excluded.

Q3. Words have the power to exclude. How?

@MicheleDD_MT Language is often a social tool used to determine who "fits in." Can have consequences for who gets hired or promoted.

@SizweMoyo Words can change a person's position in social spaces - what we think a person can do and how well we think they can do it. For a long time, the use of certain words meant that those branded with certain words [had] a smaller chance of enjoying life to the fullest.

Q4. What examples have you seen of language resulting in stigmatization?

@Yolande_MT I heard someone speaking of a person from the Muslim faith, as "that one who looks like she's wearing a ninja suit." I felt sick.

@ZalkaB So many shades of this. Abusing words and expressions that are painful for certain people and putting it into a different context. Attributing tags to people to shame them (like gold digger... ). Making fun of ppl's dialect, poor grammar.

Q5. Why do we judge people based on how they speak?

@Mphete_Kwetli English comes to mind here and South African schools and townships. Mostly people think English is a medium of intelligence not [a] medium of communication.

@ZalkaB Words matter. And are usually connected with actions, beliefs and inherent bias. I'm flabbergasted when... some people have no sense of shame throwing around words like "holocaust-style tactics", w/out any thought about the context & damage it does.

Q6. Does it matter if the divisive impact of language is intentional or not? Why?

@Tanjiskas I think it is important. Because maybe someone isn't aware of that and needs to be educated on this matter. And explaining is always better than judging. I think we all did it at some point.

@llake An evolving issue. When my grandparents immigrated here, groups of people from same countries identified themselves by collective names. Eventually, these devolved into derogatory names. Now we're trying to figure this out. What's okay and what isn't, and why or why not?

Q7. How does language affect the opportunities available to us in the workplace?

@Yolande_MT In South Africa where I live, second language English speakers are often treated as if they're a bit "slow." Someone once told me that she thought of Afrikaans people who can't speak English well as "stupid." She can only speak English.

@ColfaxInsurance Language use at work could be as important as landing you a sale/promotion or not, it comes down to understanding each individual's language use and how to effectively communicate w/ them.

Q8. A colleague uses language that is offensive to others. What do you do?

@MarkC_Avgi If someone else has not already called them out for what is offensive language to others, I will usually take them aside afterwards &, in private, bring the issue to their attention. Unfortunately, some have said: "Well, no one said anything at the time."

@Mind_Tools Give the offended person the first opportunity to say something. If it appears they won't, ask them if it would be okay if you stepped in.

Q9. Language is woven into cultures and societies. How do we change the use of divisive language?

@JKatzaman Language that is culturally embedded is tough because it's what children learn from parents and playmates. Bess Truman was asked why Harry said "manure." She replied, "You don't know how many years it took us to get him to say that."

@MicheleDD_MT Raise awareness. Educate people on unconscious biases & how we make assumptions about another group by the way they speak.

Q10. What could you do to become more aware of the language you use?

@SizweMoyo Talking to different groups of people will certainly give me a different view on the language that I may have thought is alright to use, but was wrong.

@Midgie_MT Be more conscious and aware of the words you use and the impact it might have. Ask for feedback to learn.

To read all the tweets, have a look at the Wakelet collection of this chat here.

Coming Up

Having looked at division, in our next #MTtalk chat, we're going to discuss what helps us to feel connected to other people, and how connected we feel (or not) and why.

In our poll this week, we want to know how technology has helped you to feel connected to people over the past year. To see the poll and cast your vote, please click here.


In the meantime, here are some resources that explore ways to connect better with others. (Some of these may only be available in full to members of the Mind Tools Club.)

Religious Observance in the Workplace

When to Speak Up

Mutual Respect

Avoiding Discrimination

Breaking the Glass Ceiling

Dealing With Discrimination

Dealing With Bossy Co-Workers

Building Trust

How to Be Assertive

Managing Your Boundaries

Avoiding Unconscious Bias at Work

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