Monday, June 21, 2010

"Can I call you 'babe'?"

Recently I was chatting with some colleagues, and we were discussing a researcher joining our group. One person started to say, "And this new girl-,"  looks at me, "-Oh, or should I say, 'woman'?"

All the men in the room turned to look at me.

"Definitely 'woman'. I would only say 'girl' if I was speaking about a child."

This question actually sparked a good, productive conversation. Sometimes these situations can get awkward when one is asked to represent their entire sex, but I really appreciate it when people care enough about their language to ask.

Photo by Occhiovio
I also really appreciate when people correct me on my language usage. Lately I've been trying to not use ableist language in my speech, and am glad to be called on it. It's really difficult to deprogram yourself once you establish certain patterns, but it's worth it.

Why? Because language shapes thought. While the Sapir-Whorf Hypothesis is unlikely to be true in its strongest form (language determines thought), it is most certainly true in its weak form (language influences thought). Recently cultural neuroscience has been making a splash, showing things like how people raised in individualistic or collectivist cultures will respond to the same words in completely different ways. Other studies have suggested that education level affects how people differ in the way they consider concepts such as freedom and choice.  And who knows if any of the studies we've conducted over the past century have external validity outside WEIRD (Western, Educated, Industrialized, Rich, and Democratic) populations.

Words matter. So when talking to someone who represents a group that you are not a part of, it's not a bad idea to ask them what term they'd prefer you use when you refer to them or their group. Much better that then putting your foot in your mouth!


  1. Excellent post! I agree--I find that people are much less offended when I ask how they preferred to be addressed than when I assume.