Monday, October 14, 2013

words matter, part 2

There is a distressing language epidemic going on in American English right now.
I don't know if it happens in other languages, or in other parts of the English-speaking world. I'm sure it's been going on in the USA for a long time--it's part of our cultural linguistic idiom. But it's problematic and disturbing nonetheless.

The problem is this: talking about ourselves in the second person.

Maybe you're listening to the radio and you hear someone being interviewed, and you just have to translate whatever they're saying because you know they're talking about themselves, but they're talking as if they're talking about you.

See what I mean? that whole sentence was really about me, but I managed to write it as if YOU are the ones who spend all your time listening to interviews on NPR.

It's fairly innocuous when it's just something like this, but what if I was talking about how I organize my time, how I pray, how I understand the responsibility of pet ownership, how I find meaning and value in relationships, how I navigate the world as a single young woman? What if I was a parent, talking about how I manage parenting and working and having an adult social life? What if I was a major cultural role model, talking about how I see my responsibility to my fans?

All over the place, people are talking about all kinds of topics, many of them deeply personal or individual or at least contextually bound, and using the second person to do it. The result is that I end up feeling as if they're telling me I should do what they did--it's like constantly being told what to do, how to do it, how and what to feel when and where. Which is not what they mean at all, but the phrase "you just gotta..." followed up with whatever they actually do/did is insidious. Much like exclusive use of male pronouns for God or humanity eventually burrows into the subconscious, giving the impression that God is male and only men are full human beings, using this second-person idiom eventually leads us down the path of shame, copy-catting, etc.

We already live in a culture that constantly tells us we are not ____ enough. This sloppy use of pronouns is only making that worse.

I get why we do this. I get that it is hard to be vulnerable enough to simply own our story and tell what we do. I get that our fluidity of language can be hard to pin down, and that people will insist I'm being overly sensitive. But really: listen for a day to the pronouns you hear. You won't be able to help but notice how infrequently people speak for themselves using the first person singular pronoun. It's as if we can't stop ourselves from telling other people what to do, even when what we're really doing is telling our own stories.

So how about this: use I. tell your own story. I'll tell my own story. speak for yourself, and I'll speak for myself. Watch for that second-person instinct, and notice how it feels to use the first person instead. We might just find a lot more honesty, a lot more civility, and a lot more compassion when we speak for ourselves rather than always simply at one another.

1 comment:

  1. I am intentional about using "I" when I preach, because I don't want to sound preachy (!), but I'm sure I am not so careful in conversation. Thanks for the heads-up; now it will bug me too!