Watch Your Language!

There are two types of people: those who blurt out whatever comes to mind, and those who think out their words before speaking. I’m of the second persuasion. In fact, I told a co-worker once that I always think about what I’m going to say before I say it, and her eyes popped: she could not even imagine going through life that way! Her main regret was “putting her foot in her mouth” by saying things impulsively and wishing she hadn’t. My main regret is not saying enough and wishing I had. As an adult who believes in acceptance, equality, multiculturalism and similar values, being quiet did not work in my favour. I would often find myself seething about a group email joke that I found in poor taste, derogatory comments made by builders on site at my library, or an off-hand comment by a relative about a group of people. Some examples:

  • My older uncles like complaining about politics. At a family reunion, they will discuss news stories and agree with each other about things like, “Indians have it easy; they live off government hand-outs.” When it’s pointed out that one of their daughters-in-law is First Nations, they’re quick to say, “Oh, we don’t mean you, Cathy, you’re not like the rest of them.”
  • Having dinner one evening with a friend who is African Canadian, he said to the server, “I bet this dessert was home made.” She joked, “Yes, I slaved over it for hours.” He suggested that joking about slavery to a Black person was not appropriate. She got very flustered and said she didn’t mean it that way.
  • My sister sent me an email that was making the rounds, intended to cause outrage against government policies. It stated that refugees to Canada receive $1700/month in benefits while “our own” seniors get only $600/month in Old Age Pension.

I never knew what to say in those situations, especially if no one else showed any concern. I found myself trying to teach respect to my child, working in a community with many disadvantages and trying to advocate for others, yet in my personal life, I was silent more often than not. I decided to get help by doing some research and getting tips on what to say and do in those awkward situations. By far the best tool I found was the Southern Poverty Law Center’s guide called Speak Up: Responding to Everyday Bigotry, which is now enlarged into a (free online) publication called Speak Up!

I can't pretend I didn't hear that...see that...say that.

I can’t pretend I didn’t hear that…see that…say that.

As a result, I resolved:

  • I will speak up
  • I will try to model another approach
  • I will stand on the side of victims
  • I won’t speak from another’s voice

Some examples:

  • Let’s say my grandmother refers to her next-door neighbours as “that Oriental family.” I would not think twice about saying, “Now Grandma, we don’t say Oriental any more. Aren’t the Nguyens from Vietnam?” And she might say, “I don’t know, one of those countries.” I might then go on to talk about the family and encourage good will: “Their kids look like they’re about 6 and 8?” “No, I think the little one is only 4; she’s still in preschool” and we could continue the conversation about them as neighbours.
  • A relative knows I hate it when he refers to a bad policy or decision as “retarded.” I tell him, “We don’t use the R word in our house.” He’ll say, “But I’m not talking about a person. Am I supposed to say it’s an intellectually challenged policy?” I will retort, “Why can’t you just say it’s a bad decision?” And he will keep saying it just to irritate me. But he knows from my speaking up every time that I am standing my ground.
  • I recently worked in a neighbourhood where the residents were predominantly Black. As the manager of the local library, sometimes I would be called upon to speak up on behalf of the community. I was careful about drawing conclusions. For example, if an African drum ensemble drew a large audience, I wouldn’t say in my monthly report, “Cultural programs are popular in the Black community.” Maybe an author reading or an iPad 101 class would have been equally popular.

I realize I would have to show restraint if my personal safety was at stake. For instance, I would not necessarily intervene in a racially-motivated fight at a bus stop. But I could at least call the police if necessary and act as a reliable witness. The two challenges to my views that I hear most often are:

  • Can’t I mention (race or sexual orientation or religion) at all?


  • Everyone is too politically correct nowadays.

At a workshop I attended on Cultural Competence, the instructor was asked, “Let’s say I went to my doctor’s office to get a referral. The person at the counter said they’d arrange it and call me. A week later I haven’t heard back. I return to the office and the staff person at the desk says, “Who did you speak with?” Is it OK to say, “She was Hispanic” or ‘He was wearing a turban”?

Her answer: Yes! A person’s ethnicity, country of origin or religious articles are some of many descriptors that would help you identify who you spoke with.

As for political correctness: I don’t like that term. It seems to be used only by those who don’t want their language censored for sensitivity to others. It might take some effort on our part to learn the words that various communities use to describe themselves: one example is that historic Black communities in Nova Scotia refer to themselves as Indigenous Blacks, to differentiate from recent African immigrants. But what is wrong with taking the time to learn a bit about the people you live near and work with? Or to show respect by using words the communities prefer? The alternative, of course, is simply to be very gracious when you make a mistake, to adopt the new terms as soon as you know them, and to adapt again if they change. It’s embarrassing not to: do you want to be the only person in your workplace who talks about “the homosexuals” or “the gays”? Yeesh!

Do you speak up? Or do you usually put your foot in it?

PS: I asked at the local new immigrants’ centre about the monthly payments to refugees. They were aware of the story making the rounds and were frustrated by it. They explained that a legal refugee receives a one-time payment of $1700 to set up a household. Thereafter, they receive income assistance at the usual adult rate (currently $555/month in Nova Scotia) until they find employment.


  1. I’m a speak first person. Though I keep thinking, every time I start a new workplace, that I will try to be a more quiet, temperate, closed book person. Never works. Though I do practise conversation when I am going to have a particularly difficult or sticky conversation with someone at work.

    It’d be funny, except it is sad, that the same email with the same “info” about alleged payments to refugees to Aust. is doing the rounds here. Google “kochie the real benefits for asylum seekers” for a great response from our end of the world.

    • It is impossible to go against our real selves! But I suppose we owe ourselves a bit of training to deal with situations properly, as you say. Ack, that is sad about the same chain email in Australia – I liked the response you linked to. Whenever I get an indignant email like that, I now Google it, or check it on

      • Yes, the fact that it is the same chain email or Facebook post in different countries should, of itself, prove that it is wrong and its real purpose is to encourage racism.

  2. EcoCatLady

    My, oh my… I am most certainly a speak first think later kind of person, and it has gotten me in trouble more times than I care to think about. In fact, CatMan called me this evening to tell me that he stumbled upon a book online – a history of folk music in Denver, in which I am EXTENSIVELY quoted about my experiences at the music school. I have a vague recollection of someone interviewing me about 10 years ago, but I had no idea he was going to publish a book – and some of the statements attributed to me are… well, let’s just say not exactly accurate.

    I have to track down a copy of this book because I seriously have a knot in my stomach hoping that I didn’t say anything stupid during that interview! I mean, holy moly! The book even talks about me stealing a guitar from my older brother when I was a kid… what else did I say in an unguarded moment? Sure wish the guy would have given me the chance to read it before he published it. Sigh.

    But I find it interesting how you got from being a speak-up person to issues of bigotry and insensitivity. Not sure what you’re saying there… that people who speak first and think later are more likely to express offensive thoughts? That would seem to imply that language is more important than intent, and I’m not sure I agree with that.

    I do have to say that I have mixed feelings on the whole issue of “appropriate language.” I certainly understand that certain terms are offensive to certain groups, and I try to be as sensitive as possible – but the nuances of this stuff can be sort of like trying to navigate a mine field, and I sometimes get the impression that people are looking for things to be offended by. I mean, if something is said in a degrading manner, I think it’s offensive no matter what exact vocabulary is used, but when people want to start banning certain words or lambasting someone for innocently using a word that someone else has (unbeknownst to the speaker) deemed as offensive… well, it starts to bother me.

    Here’s an example. When I was in college, one of my best friends was one of the most out lesbians on campus. She was also a DJ for the campus radio station. One evening she was doing her radio show, and most of the lesbian population of the school was hanging out in the studio with her. They decided to play a song that they all loved that had a line in it that went “There’s too many dykes, it ain’t right.” Midway through the song she got an irate phone call from a school administrator demanding that she stop playing the song and that the record be destroyed because it was offensive. She looked around at the room full of very disappointed lesbians and wondered who, exactly, was being protected by banning the word “dyke”.

    OK… so there I went, shooting my mouth off again! Hope I didn’t offend anyone this time, but I just think that in general people need to lighten up about the whole language thing and focus instead on the intent behind what’s being said. I mean, if someone is saying something hateful, or putting down a group of people, what’s important isn’t the vocabulary, it’s the sentiment behind what’s being said. That’s my 2 cents anyhow.

    • I feel that people should put “some” effort into knowing current phrases, so they’re not going around using offensive terms that stopped being used 50 years ago. Other than that, I think the key difference is whether a person is willing to apologize or allow themselves to be corrected if they offend someone. If, for example, I were to ll-advisedly refer to someone as an “Arab” and they said to me, “I actually speak Hindi,” I should have the grace to apologize about my assumptions. The way I see it is that if we never self-censor or change our way of speaking based on new knowledge, then we may be perpetuating old intolerances.

      You might be interested in this story:

      • EcoCatLady

        Oy Vay! That story is quite interesting. Frankly, I have little patience for arguments that go something like this: “I expect you to be tolerant of my intolerance.” Ummmm… sorry, but no.

        I dunno… I guess my frustration with the whole “language police” thing is that it seems to be a form over substance approach to dealing with the very real problem of prejudice. The problem isn’t really the words, it’s that we group people together (often erroneously) and then make snap judgments about them based on those groupings – and I think that’s what we ought to be focused on. But when you start banning words, regardless of the context or the sentiment behind them, I think you end up on a very slippery slope.

        That being said, I totally agree that it would be nice if people made an effort not to refer to other people in ways that they find offensive. I guess I just think that a lighter approach would be helpful… Like the friend I referred to in the “dyke” incident above… I once saw her in a situation where a guy was frustrated by a malfunctioning light switch, and kept calling the light switch “gay.” Her response was simply to say “Hmmmm… I fail to see what the sexual orientation of the light switch has to do with this issue.” The whole room burst out laughing, and I doubt that guy ever used the word “gay” in a pejorative sense again.

      • I like your example and it’s a great model for similar situations. As you say, stereotyping is the real problem and I think words and labels can serve to continue and call attention to it. A person who is respectful and sincere is probably not going to offend anyone because they are open to dialogue.

    • Thank you for such a thought-provoking post! 🙂 I have to agree with Cat . . this post went in a completely different direction than I was expecting! I say things without thinking from time to time and I’ve definitely offended people. But I don’t think that’s because of my intolerance or insensitivity. It’s usually something like, “I can’t believe ___ decided we have to ___ now” at work. I’m not trying to be hurtful! But things just pop into my head sometimes and they’re out before I even think it through. It happens 🙂 I don’t think the specific words are the issue (it’s possible to be very cruel without using any “inappropriate” language) it’s the hatred or fear behind it. Words shift meaning depending on the context and what’s welcome in one situation isn’t in another, but the sentiments behind the words are the dangerous part. Thankfully I work in a pretty open/liberal type setting and don’t have to broach these kinds of conversations often. And to have them with family! I can’t imagine. Good luck and I’m sending lots of strength your way!

      • Thanks, Amanda. It’s been a few years since I started speaking up regularly to family members, and everyone knows where I stand now! The one skill I seem to have developed is the ability to turn an uncomfortable remark into a conversation. I always try to keep in mind one of the key messages I took away from anti-racism training: that it all stems from seeing the world as Us versus Them.

  3. EcoCatLady

    p.s. I’ve been told that “Hispanic” is an offensive term, and that the appropriate word to use is either “Latino” or “Chicano” depending on the context… which I found interesting, because I had previously been under the impression that “Chicano” was offensive – but apparently it depends on whether you’re simply referring to race/ethnicity or the Chicano political movement. This stuff makes me crazy…

    • I should probably check on that because I last lived in the US more than 10 years ago and I haven’t kept up. In my area there is virtually no Spanish-speaking population. You’ve made a good point, though – using any of those terms is kinds like saying “Asian” – if I am speaking about an individual, I am likely to know whether they are Chilean, Puerto Rican, etc.

      • EcoCatLady

        Well… I also think the different people may take offense to different phrases. The context for this one was that we were putting on a music festival in partnership with an arts group full of people of Mexican & Latin American descent (for lack of a better term.) They took offense to the term “Hispanic” because it referred to the language, and they were, for the most part, 3rd generation Americans who didn’t speak Spanish. So they said the appropriate term was “Latino” because it referred to the geography not the language. However, we ended up calling it the Chicano music festival because they wanted the association with the Chicano political movement.

        I guess what it all points out to me is that we tend to group people together when they are not, in fact, homogeneous. Here in Denver there is a massive gulf between folks of Mexican/Latin American descent who are 2nd and 3rd generation Americans, and recent immigrants from those areas. And I suppose in my example above there are some lesbians who take offense at the word “dyke” and others who feel it is a term of empowerment. I guess that’s part of why I have such and issue with the banning of certain words – it just seems to miss the point as far as I’m concerned.

      • I think we agree that it works better not to generalize and label people; if it seems necessary then it is best to consult with the community; and that while words can be fickle, treating people with respect always works.

  4. Heather

    The phrase that bugs me is “African Canadian”. I highly prefer the term black. I think African Canadian has a couple of problems. 1. It is an American term that is invading our culture. 2. No one is a European Canadian. We give them the distinction of giving them a country. ie. German-Canadian, Ukranian-Canadian. We should figure out that Africa is a huge country and be specific. Somali-Canadian is very different than Zimbabwean-Canadian! 3. There are lots of black people that do not consider themselves from Africa. Jamaican-Canadians are proud of their Jamaican heritage and may not have any cultural/emotional/familial ties to Africa. 4. There are lots of non-black Africans. If a person is white from South Africa, or from Egypt and of a paler colour, are they any less African-Canadian?

    • Good points, Heather. I know in NS, as I mentioned, there are Blacks who have settled here in the 1600s, 1700s and 1800s who aren’t immigrants (obviously) since they’ve been in Canada for dozens of generations. And it is inconsistent that people say “Asians” (as a group) but also Chinese-Canadians, Japanese-Canadians and so on.

  5. Curt

    I am most definitely of the first persuasion. It is not all bad, because once upon a time, I was also a researcher, for the kind of things that have never ever been done before. That requires proof, and total objectivity, on the job. That job like all jobs, causes similar actions in our non work life.
    For years and years people have come up to me years later and apologize. I have to wait it out, or decide that I don’t actually have to get an apology anymore, for when I am actually right.
    My point is, I can only thing out loud, so I am outed all of the time to others, and so as to not be deceiving I also have to have my personal honest life our there also. What I have found that works is the highest form of honesty that I can muster up.
    So, for instance when I decided to talk about gays, at work one day, everyone shushed me up. I told them to wait, watch and listen, not one word that I used would be upsetting. Two hours later it was so. Once, when caught off guard, (which happens a lot to me), I said something to a guy at work. This was an old Montana rancher type. It was on. The verbal conversations were on. Pictures were on. We talked. It was at work so it was not non-stop. Two and a half days later, he pushes his chair facing me, away from the table. I knew what that meant. I have seen that once before. He found he was actually wrong, and knew why.
    Maybe it is being objective that works. I just don’t have a problem, when telling what is and what is proven. One day, I found I was slightly wrong, but I didn’t know it. The girl who opposed me, just walked off telling me I was wrong. I told her, I have the data to support my work. She didn’t talk to me further on this subject. I waited. I rechecked my work. It was right. It was also wrong. There were exceptions. I redid my work. Months later I found her and told her my findings. She merely said, I knew you were wrong. There was no rancor.
    Since I may have been born this way, there are many many examples, of both interactions, where I have done the work with proofs, and where I have not, and therefore am sometimes wrong and have to change what I thought was true.
    It seems though, that you are doing the same thing. On the so called issue of blacks, where there are none in reality. I think I would refer to them as people and show them the incorrectness and the problems that come with using words that are untrue.
    I did work on blacks and never ever found one, they are browns. Why should I have to say a person who might justifiably be shown to be brown, is black when that has never ever been the case. One day, this guy who was arrogant, would not admit that his software for his company had a problem. Three people proved it to him. He still refused to admit this error. I had trouble with him. Yet, in the language of who, I don’t know, he is from Cameroon and he is acting like he is something special, when he won’t even admit his own dishonesty in the software issue at hand. I am going to contest both issues, with this guy. It is my, way.
    The moment comes when he uses the black word again, for himself as a issue of superiority. I countered, using not opinion, not anger, but with: “I don’t know why you are called black. You are brown.” Later he asked me. “Have you ever seen a person who is black?” I said, that maybe in southern India, but that I was unsure. I knew that Australian Aborigines, and southern people in Southern India, are dark on television, but I had never ever been up to one to check if in fact they are black in skin color or not. The arrogance issue never came up, but the point might be, just telling what is, true, seems to keep rancor down. It also, bridges all gaps between us.

    • Hi Curt, It sounds like you want precision in language and you want evidence. I suppose a lot of people you deal with are caught up in emotionally and culturally loaded words, and they don’t use language like you do. I like to keep up with how language evolves and what words mean to “most people.” I think it’s important that people remain civil and kind and well-intentioned toward each other.

  6. Very thought provoking article Dar, and I think I’m definitely guilty of some of the concerns you have.

    I know I speak first (not think first), but there are some topics I hesitate with before speaking. I do however make generalisations, about how ‘Asians’ drive (though largely in my parents’ area they are Korean). It’s not necessarily right. I feel inclined to add ‘but’ but I have no but.

    I definitely think 5 years working in a largely anglo-saxan (white) work force of men, has made me more rough and tumble with offensive language. I don’t want to be a minority (woman) and arc up everytime they make a racial (or gender based) assumption, or joke. Within my personal life, I do call out things. As I say to my BF, it might be ‘true’ whatever he’s saying, but it’s not nice. Yes, nice is subjective, but he can’t usually argue with that point.

    I particularly protective in some ways about Aborigines, having lived in a suburb where they are prevalent, but there’s also no denying that this suburb also has higher drug use, poor property maintenance, violence and lots of alcohol abuse. That being said, I resent it being called ‘the ghetto’ or similar.

    • I agree with your last point – just because an area has social problems, doesn’t mean it should be “written off.” I spent 3 years working in a “social housing project” and I was continually reminded that everyone was just folks trying to get by using the resources they had.

      I am quite relieved not to work in an environment where racism, sexism and other “isms” are the norm.

  7. I think I am a bit of both – sometimes thoughtful and sometimes too outspoken. We have the same problems over here with immigrants claiming benefits. I see it from both sides because at work we have to sort out those people who are caught trying to defraud the system. There are also a number of dishonest claimants who make life hard for the honest and really needy ones, however the white English are not frowned upon as much as the Asian / Eastern European are for the same crime!

  8. I’m definitely a speak-first person, although when I’m worried I will think about/rehearse first.

  9. Gah….accidentally posted too soon. Anywho, I’m a speak-first person most of them time, however when it comes to appropriate language, I agree whole-heartedly with EcoCatLady’s comments. Especially “…but the nuances of this stuff can be sort of like trying to navigate a mine field, and I sometimes get the impression that people are looking for things to be offended by.” Sometimes I’m not even sure what words are correct anymore and which are not. I think intent should be a factor in whether one finds offense or speaks up. It is generally easy to tell when someone is using a potentially sensitive word on purpose to be derogatory and when they aren’t. For instance, your example of the server joking that she “slaved over something” in a conversation with a black person….it sounds like she was using a once common phrase in a joking manner and based on her reaction to your friend’s comments didn’t mean any harm. Does she really need to be called out for that and embarrassed? Couldn’t it be easier to just realize she didn’t mean anything by it and let it go? I don’t get in a huff when someone refers to female stereotypes in front of me if they’re are making a harmless joke…and I think others should chill out at times too.

    • I don’t think that people should keep their mouths shut if they don’t know the perfect current terminology. I do think if someone is respectful of others, then they are probably not using derogatory words anyway. But I think if people can be a little more proactive in learning about their coworkers, neighbours, students, etc, then they are less likely to create awkward situations. I see it as a courtesy – and also evidence that you see others as individuals whose advice you regard.

  10. I tend to be the outspoken type. If you’ve seen those “What Would You Do” Dateline episodes, I’m the person who usually does something. It’s funny because my 3 year old is already the same way inherently is often standing up for his brother to big kids at parks. However, I tend to keep my mouth shut around in-laws because I don’t want to be the bitchy daughter-in-law lol. I did just reply to a stupid chain email my aunt sent me with the Snopes link showing how it’s inaccurate. Usually I’d just ignore it, but because of your post, I replied. My FIL also posts some horrendous stuff on FB that I now feel obliged to respond to. I often find that people express their views more strongly/openly on FB rather than in real life. I tend to be brutally honest in both areas haha!

    As for the semantics of offending/not offending, I have to agree with Cat. All of this is created by humans any how, it’s all BS if you really think about it. You just have to get enough people to agree with your interpretation and suddenly that’s the right meaning. As for “the gays”, I have a friend in grad school who told me that’s what they HAVE to put in scientific papers now….that’s how that population is scientifically referred to. Thus, I found it weird that the term was considered offensive. I do think there needs to be give and take….being sensitive, but teaching others to also get over being too sensitive on things that are made up anyway. I’m a BIG believer that language is actually what makes us the dumbest species on the planet because we get intensely hung up on it rather than just basing everything on behavior and a small range of vocalizations.

    • In public and social situations, language is sometimes all we have to show respect or disrespect for others. If we spend a lot of time with a person and know them well, we are likely to use the language they prefer because we hold them in high esteem. If I just meet someone in passing (say I have to introduce them to an audience), then I would want to show regard for them, first by not saying anything that is commonly seen as offensive, and second by making them feel comfortable. And I do think that using appropriate language is part of that, and asking them their preference if it’s unclear. Most people will easily forgive language mistakes as long as antiquated and “known to be offensive” terms aren’t used, and the person is willing to stand corrected.

      • I think it’s hard for me because I’m trained as a behaviorist. I’ve just always looked at behaviors, even from a young age. I’ve heard what people say, but I’m often focusing more on body language, posturing, etc., which I feel is far, far more honest. I definitely want to respect people, but if their behavior is saying one thing and their words are saying another, I will undoubtedly judge them by their behaviors first and words second.

      • Yes, in Canada, people who are visible minorities often say we are guilty of polite racism. We say the right words but our actions belie them.

  11. I am definitely a ‘speak first, think later’ person (ouch!) but I think I’m still quite aware about stereotypes and offensive language. Until recently, we were the only ‘Anglos’ in our street and we are very good friends with our neighbours (of multiple nationalities.) It makes me do a real head-spin when I come out of our suburb and people from perhaps less diverse areas make comments that seem straight from the 1950s. But one thing that bugs me back home…some of the friends I have from different nationalities can be astonishing racist about *other* racial groups. I must admit it gets under my skin when my non-Anglo friends get together and start stereotyping the “Anglo” origin Australians! (as dumb, lazy etc.) It’s hard to call that out when they are talking about *my* racial group!

    • My new library and the neighbourhood around it (where I live) is not very diverse at all, unlike my previous workplace neighbourhood. It is a bit of a culture shock and it makes me aware that people from other areas of the city view my area as very White. (We don’t tend to use the word Anglo because in Canada that means Anglophone, or “not French.”) Whenever a group of white folks get together, it will often come up in conversation that society is so much more diverse than it used to be. But at the neighbourhood, school and workplace level, that is often not true. Other places I’ve lived or visited, like Montreal, Boston or London, are 1000% more diverse than here!

      • Fiona

        That’s interesting that “Anglo” means “not French” there. I’m still having trouble working out the right term for “White” here.

        Some say “Skip” for UK descent Australians (“Skip” as in Skippy the kangaroo.)

        Others say “Anglos”, meaning British not European-descent Australians.

        And “Aussie” is too broad because to me, it means everyone from second-generation Italian Aussies to new refugees to indigenous people.

      • We don’t have a commonly-used word for whites either, and it is complicated a little by whites being either English or French, and white French-speakers being a minority.

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