The Problem With Words

One big issue in my professional world (computer operations) is a lack of introspection about how our language affects people. I know I've been guilty of this many times. I used to not think it was a big deal, but I've come to realize that my attitude was wrong, and I needed to change the way that I think and talk. This post is my attempt to explain my thoughts and hopefully convince you to modify your language as well. I should note that while I am focused on my profession, most of these idea apply in any setting.

Real Examples

Let's start off with a couple of examples:

1. A man walks onstage at a computer conference and says, "hey guys, I'm excited to be here with you!"

2. You are configuring your database server and designate the backup servers 'slave01' and 'slave 02'.

These are both completely normal things to say and do in our industry. So what's the problem?

The problem here is exclusion. As a white guy in the audience at a conference, I wouldn't think anything about the first example. But, maybe I should. If I take a moment to look around the audience at that conference, you know what I will see? A bunch of white guys, a handful of people of color, and maybe three or four women. Is that really what I want? Is that really what we need to ensure we have a diverse industry with differing viewpoints and perspectives?

I also wouldn't think that the second example is much of a problem. But then again, as I've noted, I'm a white guy. My feelings might be different if my ancestors were directly affected by actual slavery within the relatively recent history of my country. Language like that might make me feel judged and excluded. Language like that might make me feel like I don't want to be around people who talk and think that way.

Here's what it comes down to for me: do I really want to be surrounded by a bunch of people who are exactly the same as me?

The answer is no, and the reason is simply that I don't want to be surrounded by sameness. How boring is that? How can I grow as a person if there's nobody around to challenge my views?

But Aren't We Just Being 'Politically Correct'?

The short answer to this is who the hell cares? Why should I get worked up about clinging to the words I use now, when there are perfectly reasonable alternatives to be had? In the first example, the presenter could have said, "hey folks!" In the second example, it's simple enough to use other terms, like client/server master/follower, etc. It's not like any of this requires any great effort on my behalf. And that is my central assertion: why not just use more inclusive language, if it doesn't cost you anything to do so? Worst case, you start using a few new terms and nothing else in your life changes. Best case? You start using a few new terms, women and people of color feel more acceptance, and your world becomes the richer for it.

I'm not saying that just changing our language is going to magically fix the diversity problem in our industry, but it's a step in the right direction.

Obligatory 1984 Reference

I feel that it's basically impossible to discuss this topic without referencing 1984, so here goes:

Power is in tearing human minds to pieces and putting them together again in new shapes of your own choosing.

I encourage all of you to take your mind apart and put it back together by changing your language. You have nothing to lose except your pride, and everything to gain via the inclusion of different people and their perspectives.


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