On the Impact of Diction

At work, we’ve been having conversations about diction and its associated impact. Most commonly, we’ve been discussing the use of the phrase “You guys” when addressing a group which contains at least one female. Some of the concerns are that the phrase may lead to feelings of exclusion or disrespect as only the male members are recognized and addressed; the female members are regarded almost as second-class citizens in this way. To respond to this problem, people have been working on diction awareness and word choice when communicating.

Something I’m curious about with this challenge is the intent of people behind their decision to act. I understand that intentions can be complex and that there may be more than just these two, but I’d like to discuss two possible intentions here.

One possible intention is that you’re responding to this problem to attempt to reduce the possibly negative impact on those around you. In other words, you’re acting to improve yourself.

I think this is a noble intention. However, if you find yourself getting angry, annoyed, frustrated, or disappointed when other people choose to use the phrase “You guys,” it may be an indicator that this is not your (only) intent. After all, how often (or how rational) is it to get angry at people for not working towards the same personal development goals as yourself?

Another possible intention is that you’re responding to this problem to attempt to help, protect, or defend the potentially affected parties. I can understand why people would have this intention. However, I have some concerns.

Protectionism has some very noteworthy flaws. The defending force (be it a person, a system, or something else) may not always be present to protect the affected. Situations and people change; the words and behaviours that most negatively impact someone today may not be the same words and behaviours that most negatively impact the same person tomorrow. People cannot be controlled; as much as you may try to convince people, as much as you may try to help people understand something, there is always the chance that the decide not to behave in a way that you find favourable.

So is there a better alternative?

I would argue that it is more beneficial to help the affected parties build a sense of empowerment and resiliency. Building these character traits would help address each of these issues: they will not need a defender, they will be able to adapt as time and the world moves forward, and they will be able to handle situations where people behave in unfavourable ways.

Unfortunately, developing these traits is not an easy task. Some ideas that may help include:

  • acknowledging the achievements, positive traits, and favourable behaviours of the individual
  • when offering them a challenge, reminding them of a time when they were able to triumph over a similar feat
  • when delivering bad news or negative feedback, remind them that they are still okay and that the challenging time will pass
  • working with them to see all the options they have in any given situation, and then which options they may or may not want to choose

Protectionism may, in fact, be a viable short-term solution. However, I think that for someone to overcome issues such as those that arise from the diction of those around them, it is more effective for them to build a sense of empowerment and resiliency so they are prepared to tackle these issues as well as other problems they may encounter in the future.

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