Jargon, power, and trivialization

Posted on February 20, 2012


“Thank you for sharing.”

When said unironically, this, and similar meta-comments, are ways to remind us who’s in charge.

Think about it for a moment. In a group session of some sort, one of the participants tells a personal anecdote revealing an unusual degree of vulnerability. At the end, the group moderator says, “Thank you for sharing.”

What’s just happened?

Well, first it trivializes what has taken place. We “share” cookies, toys, food, and housework. We don’t “share” stories about childhood abuse, embarrassing incidents during drunken blackouts, or tales of getting pounded into a pulp on the playground when we were children.

If the officials in charge of group encounters wish to call such things “sharing,” that’s up to them. But they can do so in the privacy of their own little meetings while showing Powerpoint slides to each other and throwing their shoulders out of joint as they pat themselves on their backs.

In other circumstances, however, they can act like human beings and either remain silent for a few minutes, or, if they feel the need to speak, say something comforting and humane.

I used the “thanks for sharing” as an example because most people can quickly relate to it, but the fact is, similar ploys occur constantly in business (and especially in education). Every phrase such as “facilitate” instead of “help,” or “action this” instead of “do this” is little more than a thinly-disguised power-play. It may be said by the “team leader,” or it may be said by a “team member” trying to get the upper hand — but it is always, always, a means of taking attention and authenticity away from one person and conferring it upon oneself.

But it’s also more than that.

Words affect the way we perceive reality. They can’t, of course, fully change reality, but they can go a long way in the way we deal with it. Consider the way we now refer to people and relationships. We have “life partners,” which makes it sound like we’re entering into a small business together. Nobody “has” a disease anymore, they are now “people living with” a disease.” The net result, oddly enough, is to dehumanize us.

You don’t believe me? Try comparing these two sentences:

Bob has cancer.”

Bob is a person living with cancer.”

The first inspires immediate sympathy. Bob — a specific person, has cancer. Cancer is a nasty, often painful, and frequently fatal disease.

The second distances us. First of all, Bob becomes merely one of many “persons.” Second, the full significance of the disease is trivialized. After all — he’s “living with” it, isn’t he? Even worse, because of its incessant use, the phrasing of the second sentence can actually inspire antagonism. The professor of an abnormal psychology class I sat in on was meticulous in always using the “people living with” phrase. After several classes, he highlighted it by saying, “and remember, it’s always ‘a person living with,’ not ‘a person with.'”

“What the hell is the difference!” yelled an exasperated and unidentified voice from behind me.

Yes, I know. The point is to stress the positive side of the disease in question — to make it clear that even diseases like cancer are not necessarily a death sentence.  All too often, however, the end result is merely to make it look like we’re burying our heads in the sand and refusing to acknowledge the seriousness of the situation. To continue blindly using a phrase solely in order to follow a party line, while completely ignoring its actual effect on the general population, is just another means of tugging on the reins of power.

Another example can be found in our growing obsession over our romantic “relationships.”

The importance of having a healthy relationship.”

How to help your partner feel at ease in talking about your relationship.”

Seven signs that your relationship is in trouble.”

During one of my classes several years ago, a student asked me what I thought about relationships. (Yes, it was an all female class, and no, it wasn’t quite as off-topic as it sounds.)

“I don’t believe in relationships,” I told her. “You can’t take a relationship out to dinner. You can’t celebrate a victory with a relationship. And you can’t cry on the shoulder of a relationship when you feel like you’re a complete failure and the world is against you. It takes a person to do all this, and no relationship can take the place of a person.”

Undeterred, she pressed on to what had obviously been her main point (precipitated, I have no doubt, by a recent fight with her boyfriend).

“But they should be 50/50, right?”

“No,” I said. “It should be 100 per cent. Your 100 per cent might be larger or smaller than the 100 per cent of the person you love, but that’s not the point. To an outsider it might look like 60/40, 70/30, or even 90/10. What counts, however, is that each of you is putting in everything you have. Anything less — well, anything less is just a couple of business partners agreeing on how much each will put into the business.

“And if you don’t feel that you want to put in 100 per cent with someone, then maybe that’s not the person you should be with.”

We complain a lot about the misuse of jargon, but generally we do so with the attitude that, while annoying, it is essentially harmless. But it isn’t harmless. It is subtly and negatively shaping ourselves and the world we live in.

In the end, this ubiquitous jargon does two things.

  1. It serves to dehumanize us, making us merely one of many members of a larger team to which we owe our allegiance.
  2. And it serves to remind us who, exactly, is in charge of this conglomerate.

And that person isn’t you, bub.


On a side note — don’t forget to drop by tomorrow (Tuesday) for my guest poster, Imogen.