Unintended consequences

16th September 2014

A couple of months ago I was called out for a word I picked to describe a situation. It was a common word in my vocabulary and I thought nothing of using it. I wasn’t called out because this word was rude but because of the unintended consequences of it’s use.

The word is commonly used to describe situations in the exact way that I was using it, but rather than arguing I was correct in using it, I stopped. I listened. I thought about it. And now I can’t help but notice when ever anyone else uses it. But more than that, I now flinch when people use a whole collection of words and phrases that previously I would have used without a second thought.

I described a situation as mental. What I was trying to say was the outcome situation was very different from what I would expect. But by using that word I was, by implication, attaching any opinions, or connotations of the the outcome to anyone who suffers from mental disorders, I was being ableist.

That isn’t what I wanted to do. That isn’t what I want to do. I don’t want to mix opinions of unrelated situations with real people. Once it was pointed out to me I felt terrible. How often do I do this? Does it extend beyond this one word? Upsettingly it does.

For another similar example take this sentence “People struggle to use forms so we should make them stupidly simple”. What you have just done there, without realising it, is call anyone who struggles with forms stupid. That isn’t what you meant. You could have easily said “People struggle to use forms so lets make them really easy to use”. With the simple rephrasing you no longer belittle the people who were struggling.

Words are difficult. But sometimes spending just a tiny bit longer on picking the right ones is the difference between attaching unnecessary and demeaning stigmas to people and just describing a situation.