The language we use

Can we change the words we use and be heard? Over the years, I have discovered something. The language I use forms the way I think in a sort of chicken and egg way. Not only does it change the way I think, it changes the way I am perceived and the way I am heard. (Communications 101: I am not responsible for what I say; I am responsible for what you hear.)

Let me explain by way of a story. Working my way through school, I took a job at a Yachting Chandlery. I fell in with the skipper of ‘Riskin’, a 6-meter raced out of Shilshole Bay. I landed a berth handling the running backs. About half the crew worked with me at the chandlery and the other half were experienced racing sailors from other vocations.

As we drove through the Lipton Cup series, stress mounted from race to race. When the stress level rose high enough someone might say, “Harden up on that Harken 908.” Or “Ease the Lewmar.” Of course, half the crew knew the exact line to manipulate and the other half of the crew took a second to translate what was meant.

Those of us who handled parts by manufacturer and part number all week long knew which winch was a Lewmar and which block was a Harken 908. There was no need to say ‘boom vang’ or ‘outhaul’. We knew the part and our sailing experience told us what to do with the line running through it. Our language formed the way we thought about driving the boat.

I see the terms sex worker and prostitute used here and pause. To me, the words describe an honorable vocation (or avocation for those who love their work.) To the public as a whole, I am afraid the words suggest a negative connotation. Take the term sex offender. The moment the term is encountered, by the majority, images of child rapists come to mind. There is no place to discuss the broad range this term encompasses.

I am afraid the same thing happens when the term sex worker or prostitute is used. Listening stops as negative images flood the hearers mind. Use the word fuck in ‘polite society’ if you want to stop a dialogue. In fact, I doubt it would be acceptable to congratulate a new father with a punch in the shoulder emphasized with the words, “You Mother-Fucker.”

What we mean is simply not what is heard. Do we need to desensitize the listener or do we need to find new ways to convey meaning? For internal conversations, the use of words and terms like sex worker, prostitute, porn, pornography and so forth work well because we are standing on what I understand to be the rational side of the argument. To the society we are trying to educate, I am afraid the words simply take an irrational mind and wind it a bit tighter.

My experience in traveling the world for my work always left me feeling as if I was coming back to a teenage pajama party upon my return. Somewhere, America forgot to grow up. I think, in addressing adult issues, we must speak in a language our immature society can understand without being embarrassed or worse blocking us out because ‘mother told me that was bad.’ My son came home from school to tell me that ‘shut up’ is a bad word. That was in kindergarten. I have spent the last twenty years explaining to him that there are no bad words, only bad ways to use words. I also tried to explain this to his kindergarten teacher at the time of the report; she could not conceive what I was saying. It seems rational thought, critical understanding, and precise language does not exist outside of academia and some very few other enclaves. Perception is a function of the whim of the masses and to communicate with the masses, to effect change, we must learn a language they understand.


Everyman's death diminishes me because I am involved in mankind...