Monday 3 September 2018

Do you really want to hurt me? Language matters.

I am a linguist by profession: words and language are (or were) the tools of my trade. I have therefore followed with interest the conversation that has developed over the past year or so regarding the use of language in healthcare.

Fundamentally, as Dr Partha Kar pointed out in this recent post, it’s a simple question of good manners. Whether it’s the #HelloMyNameIs campaign so admirably started by and perpetuated in the name of the late Dr Kate Granger or the NHS #LanguageMatters campaign arising from the thoughtless language sometimes used to talk about diabetes, choosing appropriate words is a matter of common courtesy. Our sophisticated power of speech is what distinguishes us from other animals, and words are wonderful things, but can also be very powerful and hurtful weapons.

However, at the risk of clouding an age-old and simple issue of manners, I do feel that the issue of language has become more difficult in our increasingly connected, hyper-communicative and instantly reactive world. And the problem extends well beyond the world of healthcare. At the risk of seeming like an anti-internet reactionary (which I am anything but), I feel that the written language has become so common a currency that it has perhaps become devalued and under-estimated.

The ease and ubiquity of exchanging words with a far larger audience than was possible just a few years ago means that the words that we so readily use have a far greater reach. We have all become potentially influential writers, with the power to persuade and influence but also to hurt far more people than just those around us.

The English language in particular is wonderful, and in many ways deserves to have come to dominate communication across the world in the way it has done. Our language is uniquely rich and subtle, and has the ability to adapt and change at bewildering speed without losing its power or its charm.

Yet perhaps one aspect that requires more thought and attention is the way in which divisions between the spoken and written forms of language have become blurred: thanks to ICT, we all now communicate far more in writing than in the past, using text, social media and email to communicate in a way which just wasn’t possible in the past. Some moan about sloppy language, grammatical errors, and the use of abbreviations, acronyms and emojis as evidence that standards are falling, yet I see some marvellously expressive use of language in the online world.

However, what we are in danger of losing is the ability to distinguish between appropriate registers of language. In effect, we all now write as if we are speaking, which is great, but overlooks the fact that the written word (as seen on the screen of our phone or tablet) has a potentially hurtful permanence that the spoken word does not. We all say things in the heat of the moment which are hurtful, but we can apologise, explain why we did it, then perhaps say the same thing in a gentler way and in so doing start to put the hurt right. But anything written, for example in a Twitter post, stays there in perpetuity, such that it retains the power to cause harm and upset in a way which may not have been intended. If you need proof of the problem, we now have a US President who appears to think it wise to share his impulsive and at times ill-considered thoughts with the world using Twitter. 

The decline of formal registers of language is in some ways commendable: the Plain English Campaign has done much to ensure that ordinary people can understand complex specialised documents and that rich and powerful people and organisations cannot hide behind unnecessarily opaque language. But there is a place for formal and restrained language which has been carefully crafted, considered and reviewed. The sort that was in the past used in letter-writing, dare I say?

Our written language has, quite understandably, become very "chatty". Which is fine in its own way, as long as we don’t overlook the context or the importance of what we are saying. If there are no boundaries to what we say, no conventions and taboos, we risk causing unintended harm, and using words which are far too strong for the context. In particular, swearing has been massively devalued (as happened years ago with the French language), such that it has completely lost its impact yet has retained the power to cause offence and upset. I am not against the use of swear words, but there is no point in having them if they lose the power to add an element of shock and emphasis to what I say. So on the very rare occasions when I do swear, people know I am really annoyed. And I would never swear in writing unless directly and privately addressing trusted friends. The casual use of previously taboo words in the online world has to some extent undermined the power of those words, yet they are still nasty: people say “WTF” without thinking what they are actually saying, and casually insult those of whom they disapprove using slang words for the genitalia of both genders. There was an amusing lack of irony which I saw in a supposedly supportive response to Partha’s post calling for people to be gentler in their use of use of language by someone saying “It's surprisingly simple to not be a dick”. Talk about fighting fire with fire...

So perhaps some of the keyboard warriors out there should remember that although they may think they are just “talking” online, they are in fact writing, and in so doing can cause more hurt than was intended. And just because the object of our anger is a doctor, a politician, a footballer or a celebrity does not mean that he or she has no feelings.

Language matters, and words can hurt: but “Do you really want to hurt me?

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