A Language Expert on Why We Struggle to Communicate

Language is increasingly contentious. So much of it is rooted in old-ass traditions that no longer suit our current social and political landscape. Every time I’m educated about a word or expression I didn’t realize was offensive, I’m a heady combination of grateful and nervous. What else don’t I know?

I considered assembling a “progressive glossary” — to research and catalogue the most modern way to speak with respect to class, gender, race and so on — with the goal of educating myself and others. But after culling around 50 terms — a sloppy-as-fuck list that seemed at once too detailed and not detailed enough — I felt a little lost. So I emailed language expert Robin Lakoff for help.

Lakoff is a professor of linguistics at Berkeley. In 1975, she wrote a book called Language and Woman’s Place, which helped catapult language to a primary focus of second-wave feminism. Her book, on a much larger scale, sought to do 40 years ago what I was trying to do today. Kind of the perfect resource, right?

To my surprise, she agreed to speak with me on one condition: that I abandon my endeavor to create such a list. Eager to hear more, I agreed. And, in keeping with my promise, below you will find not a glossary, but a transcript of my fascinating conversation with her about the increasingly divisive landscape of words today.

Me: I originally asked you for your perspective on how language is changing and how we can help people learn what terms they should and shouldn’t use. But you told me that that wasn’t necessarily the right way to look at it. Can you explain?

Robin: Well there are lists about what women should or shouldn’t say, what men should or shouldn’t say, what people should or shouldn’t say. And each one has different implications.

Me: Right.

Robin: But for literally thousands of years, lists have been made up about how people should talk to achieve something interactionally or socially, and they don’t usually succeed. Take the Romans for example. Back when Latin was beginning to break down into the romance languages, lists were made to instruct people how to speak. “If you want to be taken seriously, talk this way,” or, “don’t talk that way because people will think you are an oaf,” that kind of thing.

When you compare modern language to those lists, all the words they tried to encourage have vanished, while the words they tried to discourage show up across French, Spanish, Italian, Portuguese, et cetera. What we draw from that is that this kind of admonition — which has been called “change from above” – doesn’t work.

Me: The original reason we wanted to put this together was to make people feel heard — people who are saying, “Hey, this kind of wording makes me feel alienated,” or, “That wording is disrespectful” — and learn from them. Is that the wrong way to look at it?

Robin: It’s hard. Context is always extremely important in deciding what language means. Making a list of any kind is tricky because a list by nature would be contextualized. A list kind of implies a universality of language use that doesn’t exist.

Me: So the problem with these kinds of glossaries is they make a lot of assumptions and generalizations about who is speaking and how they should speak?

Robin: A list doesn’t recognize that language is very changeable and malleable and that the context makes all the difference. A word that might be troublesome or offensive in one situation might bring people together and feel comforting in another. That said, I don’t think it’s a bad idea for people to be aware that word choices are based on every kind of context: historical, social, interactional. If you know a word has some kind of charge on it, it’s good to be very careful.


Me: It’s getting trickier to know what does and doesn’t have a charge though. How do we figure that out?

Robin: Well to understand why that is, let’s go back a little bit. When the civil rights movement geared up in the late ‘50s and ‘60s and the women’s movement in the late ‘60s and ‘70s, it was the first time that people who’d previously had no control over language began to understand that 1) they could have it and 2) it was important to have it. For those groups to gain enough power to tell others how to speak and have this new kind of control was amazing and shocking.

The first set of words that were blackballed were the N-word and all those words we use about women: the B-word, the C-word, “lady,” “girl.” We stunted those words to some degree, and accomplishing that gave us hope that we could accomplish other things. That equality was a possibility.

This increased calling out of micro-aggressions might be the next stage of the revolution. It’s about a new form of power. When someone is offended and calls a speaker out, it’s a way of saying: I am somebody and I am somebody that can control you. The speaker might not like the idea of being controlled by a woman or by a person of color, but too bad.

We’re going through a rough period. These are hard times; even people with the best intentions don’t always know how to speak. But if we get through it, we could come out as human beings in a much better human situation. Maybe all this is a sign that things really are beginning to change, and change for the better.

Me: So making a “progressive glossary” sort of takes power away from marginalized groups – or takes away their opportunity to gain power?

Robin: Well, it could. Giving lists to women about how they should or shouldn’t talk probably should be avoided, even if women ask for it because they feel insecure. We’re made to feel insecure and guilty all the time. So we say, “Oh gosh, please give me a list of what I should and shouldn’t say,” and that’s part of the problem. One of the things we learned on November 8th — or should have learned — is that it doesn’t matter what a woman says or how a woman says it. What matters is that a woman is speaking in public in a position of power or seeking power. It’s going to be a long process. There’s no list you can give women so she won’t be criticized. It’s not going to happen.

Me: I never thought about it that way but it makes so much sense.

Robin: It’s very hard to be a woman. And the lists of “talk like this, don’t talk like this” make it even harder. And it puts the burden on the speaker.

Me: Right, so what about language guidance for men? Or lists for the more privileged party, whether in the case of race, class, gender or otherwise?

Robin: That’s not so bad, but it’s best if it comes from a member of the less-privileged party, historically. The question is: Do the privileged listen? If you really want to make changes in language, I think you have to make changes in society first. And then the language will follow the change.

Me: Changes in society come before changes in language?

Robin: Yes, and this is a hard-learned lesson. In the beginning of the second wave of the women’s movement in the ‘70s, when we first started writing about language and gender, we were very hopeful. We said, “Here are some words you can change to make things more equal — like ‘Miss’ versus ‘Mrs.'” If we were really radical, we would eliminate these titles altogether because why do we really need them? Or, if we have to have gender titles, why not just have one for all men and one for all women? It seems so simple. And it worked for a while, but it didn’t stick. Still today, these titles are in circulation.

We did make some progress. We got “police officer” instead of policeman, “firefighter” instead of fireman, “department chair” instead of chairman and a few others. But again, the fact that “chairman,” as a term, still exists, when the man is totally unnecessary, is a sign that we haven’t entirely let go of our prejudices.


Me: A lot of these kinds of arguments over language are happening online now. It’s easier than ever to pick apart words and call each other out. Do you think that’s a good thing?

Robin: What’s difficult about communicating online is you lose the context of dealing with a person face-to-face, which can make you feel more sympathetic. Misunderstandings are much harder to have in-person versus online for this reason. On the internet, little things that wouldn’t otherwise be fights are blown into feuds and, in that environment, it’s harder to learn from the experience. We just don’t know how to use the internet yet. It’s too young — we don’t understand how to talk through computers.

Me: Do you think that tricky environment is inevitable? Like teenage years for the internet? Or are there things we can be do to improve this quickly?

Robin: It may just be a teenage thing we have to work our way through. At every point in history where we’ve had to learn a new channel of communication, it’s taken a long time to get into it. Once upon a time, human beings were not literate, and it took us a very long time to communicate in writing as well as we communicate face-to-face. In many ways, we still haven’t quite mastered literacy. There was also a sluggish period in the early 20th century where people had to learn to use the telephone. It was the first time people were orally communicating not in the presence of the person they were communicating with. That required a bunch of learning.

Me: Wow, of course! That’s so fascinating!

Robin: Do you notice that you and I are interrupting each other occasionally? We wouldn’t be doing that if we were standing in front of each other talking. I can’t see your nonverbal signals, you can’t see mine, so we sometimes misjudge. 100 years later, we still haven’t quite learned how to use the telephone.

Communication online is much newer. When you can’t see or hear the person and you don’t know the person — it’s less context than we’ve ever had. We tend to be snappier, nastier, trolly-er and so on, which we would never do face-to-face. We say things we wouldn’t normally say if we had more information.

Me: Why do you think that is?

Robin: Konrad Lorenz wrote a book called On Aggression many years ago. In the context of warfare, he pointed out that the closer the participants were to each other, the harder it was to kill one another. Killing somebody with a knife is very hard because you’re right up there and you hear the sound of the flesh. Killing someone with a gun is easier because you’re at a distance but you see them getting killed. Dropping a bomb on someone is pretty easy because you don’t see the damage you’re doing to another human being.

We can draw a similar comparison when it comes to communication. If you’re talking with someone face-to-face, you understand that this is another human being. The further away you get — talking on telephone, texting, being anonymous online — you’re increasingly less careful and connected to the person. All hell can break loose.

Communication is a huge part of being human. New forms of communication mean new ways to be a human being. We just haven’t mastered this one yet. We might want to make rules — “say this, don’t say that” — so no one will be offended, but it’s much larger than that. Communication is a much more nuanced and abstract thing.

Illustrations by Maria Jia Ling Pitt.

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  • CaseyHipp

    What a relief this discussion is. She pointed out the pressure of communication as a women, to say things perfectly all the time. Her approach utilizes common sense in communicating with others. Isn’t the goal of communication to express ourselves. I think if our intention is to do so kindly and honestly, then maybe the rest will follow. Or so I hear from your interview!

    • Lauren

      “the pressure of communication as women” is a really interesting point. When a woman says something ‘imperfect’ people are waiting with baited breath to criticise. The same thing from a male and people shrug it off. I guess that’s the same for most oppressed/oppressor frameworks.

  • Lauren

    This is fascinating! Putting in perspective how relatively new the internet is, and communicating via the internet, begins to explain our difficulty with it!

  • Lauren

    I followed up reading this with http://www.manrepeller.com/2017/03/casey-affleck-abuse-allegations.html

    After reading this article based around language and then following it up with the first paragraph of the Casey Affleck article, it was quite jarring. Someone’s voice was unsettling the one that was usually in control…

  • BarbieBush

    The desire of Mr to want to make a list makes sense on some levels..like a “guide” or something of what we consider constructive language and that which is harmful. But yeah that just isn’t possible I don’t think.

    Even ‘Robin’ said ‘ n-word’ when simultaneously saying context is what matters in language. I hate when people say ‘n word’. Can you say ‘nigger’ in the context of speaking about the actual word? If you are saying context is what matters? I think people don’t because it is soo inflammatory and evil and scary to pronounce it with the hard ‘r’. I didn’t even want to type it because I would fear backlash or some comment algorithm flagging the comment. I don’t feel inappropriate using the word when I am talking about the word. But although I have one black parent and three dark skinned siblings, my skin is white and I am assumed white. So I don’t think I can be the definitive word, even for myself.

    And then the same word with the ‘a’. That is usually considered okay for black people to say about other black people. And I don’t typically see ‘nigga’ used in a harmful racial context by anyone. But it is considered NOT okay for white people to say it, in any context.

    I’m not arguing for either of these positions really, just interested that some words, because of the history and pain behind them, don’t fit even a linguist’s mold.

  • Love that you are making this a conversation! At times I find myself wishing language was less confusing and more straight forward, think of a world without misunderstandings! Would be amazing. But perhaps also boring?

  • EmilyWilson

    AHHHHH you interviewed Robin Lakoff; I am so jealous right now!! This interview was brilliant. So beautiful and thought-provoking and deeply reflective on both a personal and a societal level. If you want to keep reading more reflections on the power of language to shape perceptions and conceal ideologies, you should read Deborah Cameron’s blog. This one is AMAZING: https://debuk.wordpress.com/2015/07/05/just-dont-do-it/

    Fave quote: “the problem isn’t women’s speech, it’s the way women’s speech is pathologized and policed.”

    Also, Anne Curzan’s TED talk “What Makes a Word Real?” is fascinating: https://www.ted.com/talks/anne_curzan_what_makes_a_word_real

  • Merrynell

    Wow, the comparison of communication to warfare… now if all of the internet can simply embed that thought deeply in their minds, we’d be much kinder to each other. Compassion in heavy doses is what we need.

  • Bo

    The aggression theory is interesting because it inverts the pattern of called the Rule of Proximity relating to altruism – the closer you are to someone in need, the more likely you are to step in and assist. Eg if somebody in the same room as you collapses with a heart attack, you’re going to immediately try to help by calling an ambulance, maybe commencing CPR, but if you see on the news about children starving in a third-world country, the likelihood of most people actually doing something doesn’t go much further than feeling sad about it, thinking about donating to a charity, perhaps going through with it. This rule is in part due to practical reasons, but it’s interesting that there’s an inverse effect when it comes to doing bad things to others.

  • mcv123

    Oh, Man Repeller! <3 From a linguistics PhD student who is sick of all the garbage pop writing and reporting about language and gender stuff, THANKS for talking to an *actual linguist* (and one of the most important voices in the field at that). So Good!

  • Greta

    Great article!

  • Anne Dyer

    Great piece. Reminds me of my mother who was a nun and a feminist in the late 60’s and left the convent to marry and have a family. In church on Sundays she would read the scripture and change “mankind” to “humankind” and no one in the congregation dared challenge her. It was awesome.

  • Alison

    “It’s very hard to be a woman. And the lists of “talk like this, don’t talk like this” make it even harder.”

    YES. I struggle with this as a teacher. We have feedback from career services that suggests that students — especially female students, the overwhelming majority of my department (undergrad & grad) — won’t be taken seriously if they use “uptalk.” But it’s really hard to tell a student to change the way that she talks. It feels like a mean-spirited power move, and it makes them uncomfortable.

    I’ve weighed the pros and cons, and I always end up saying something. I’ve determined that I care more that my students get good jobs in their professions than if they like me. But it’s not a comfortable position, and I’d love some advice from MR’s experts and readers. <3

  • meme

    Such an amazing read.