Watch Your Language: The Importance of Rhetoric in Creating Safe Spaces

By Gennifer Eccles

Credit: Martine Ehrhart

Credit: Martine Ehrhart

The other day at work I was ringing up the last of a customer’s groceries, going about my merry way. I was in a pretty good mood, considering I had just started my shift and hadn’t gotten to that state of mindlessness when every customer blends together. I started bagging groceries with my coworker, when a manager on shift came up to him and said, “I hate it when people who aren’t crippled use the wheelchairs.” I was shocked that my coworker had said this, and he wasn’t quiet either. If I could hear him over the sounds of incessant small talk, the beeping of the scanner, and the music in the background,  I’m sure others could hear it as well. I immediately snapped my head to my other coworker, but he just laughed and continued to bag. At the time, I decided to let it slide; I wasn’t about to confront my manager in front of a customer, especially at a job I had just started. 

The more time that passed, the more upset I got. I was offended, and for several reasons. While I am able-bodied, my mother isn’t. Since her diagnoses almost six years ago, I have learned a lot about disabilities  and the discrimination that follows. I’m not going to tell my mom’s story 一 it’s not mine to tell by any means, but I have seen first-hand the discrimination and dismissiveness that disabled people face, whether it’s from family, friends, doctors, or the community at large.

My two main issues with my manager’s complaints are that one; “crippled” connotes that disabled people are broken and inferior, and two; this manager was completely disregarding any disabilities that are not visible. Many disabilities do not manifest physically, but that does not mean they aren’t real and valid. Just because we don’t see a disability doesn’t mean that it doesn’t exist.

My manager had no clue about my personal life and why I would take his comment to heart. We never know about other peoples’ experiences, which is why we must always make sure our language is inclusive. This whole incident got me  thinking about what sort of offensive language people are unaware of. I thought it was common sense that in 2019, we do not use the word “cripple” anymore to describe people with handicaps or disabilities. But both of my managers seemed completely ignorant to the fact that “cripple” is a slur. 

There’s multiple ways that language can be exclusive.  Some might not be as obvious as the incident at my workplace, but we should all be aware of them and be cognizant of the many ways language can impact a person’s sense of safety and acceptance. 

One such example seems pretty simple and is so ingrained in our everyday conversations that we might not realize it’s an issue in the first place. This is the ever-present use of the word “guys” when referring to a group. If you’re talking to a group of people, how do you greet them? If it’s with the phrase, “Hey guys!”ー you’re not alone.  Thanks to the first women and gender studies class I took, I realized that the phrase immediately excludes all womxn and non-binary individuals. 

Last semester, a fellow classmate presented on the topic. She argued that while it might seem harmless to say “Hey Guys,” the phrase has more severe implications. My peer compared this generalization to assuming someone’s sexuality. She argued that it would be off-putting and jarring if someone went up to a group and said, “Hey straights!” In a heteronormative world, we often assume people are straight until proven otherwise. But if I went up to a group and greeted them like this, it would exclude any member of the LGBTQIA+ community. This hypothetical greeting creates a hierarchy in which straight people are recognized, and all other sexualities are dismissed. Calling a group of people “guys” achieves the same, but with gender; men are acknowledged, while all other genders are disregarded. 

There are plenty of substitutes for the phrase “Hey Guys.” If I’m in a more formal environment like a club meeting that I’m presenting at, I usually replace “guys” with something more gender neutral, like “everyone.” If I’m surrounded by friends, family, or acquaintances, I go for a more casual “y’all.” Of course, we always make mistakes. To me, being a feminist and being inclusive isn’t about being PC all the time. I’ve slipped up several times in my language, like using the wrong pronouns for someone or starting a  meeting off with “Hey Guys!” The important thing is to always correct yourself and keep working to create a safer environment. If you do slip up, backtrack, use the correct language, apologize, and move on with what you were saying. Instead of feeling guilty for making a mistake, keep working on your rhetoric to make a space where everyone feels welcome. 

My manager had no clue that I would find his comments so offensive, and he was ignorant to how his language was problematic. Likewise, we don’t know about peoples’ experiences and trauma, so we must do all we can to ensure as safe a space as possible. A quick  way to do this is through our language. Don’t assume anything about a person, whether it’s their sexuality, gender, health, etc., and have your language reflect that. The next time you’re talking to a group of people, try to keep in mind the larger implications of your words.