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Women vs Girls

Last night I attended a dinner with 10 powerful women, who are leaders throughout our area. We talked about a variety of topics around gender and ethnic inequity that had impacted us throughout our careers. One of the most profound discussion points referenced how women are sometimes referred to as “girls” instead of “women,” thus reducing our importance and value. How does this impact everyone?

One of the most powerful items discussed was that white women are spoken of as “that lady over there,” while black women are referred to as “that black girl over there,” regardless of age. It became apparent that by using different terms for black vs white women there is still a distinct difference and that the choice of words matters.

I asked Janet, the woman who, along with her colleagues, had heard these specific words repeatedly, “How would you like to address these comments if you were able?”  She replied that she would be respectful and would use this as a teaching moment by reminding the people who address her as “girl” that, in fact, she is 60 years old and hasn’t been a girl for nearly five decades. She said that she would prefer that if a white woman is identified as “lady” that she too would be addressed as “lady”.

Jane, another woman at the table, then replied that she didn’t like the word “lady” either. She felt that while being at functions, men address other men as “that man over there,” and then speak of women as, “that lady over there.”  For her, keeping our language symmetrical was important.  In this case, she would prefer that when the word, “man” is used, then “woman” should be used.  If “gentleman” is used, then it would be appropriate to use the word “lady” to address his counterpart (e.g., “Ladies and gentlemen).

While this may seem petty on the outside, these defining words go to the core of who we are and how we believe we are perceived by others.  Language and words matter.

Here are a few ideas of how we can become more aware of the words we use and learn to use a more appropriate language with others – have a LATTE! And it doesn’t have any calories!

1) LISTEN – If we truly listen to others speak, we can often pick up language cues from the conversation.  It’s always easiest to use the words, phrases, and euphemisms we are familiar with when we talk to others. Instead, we could take the time to really listen to the verbiage others use, we can become more aware of the terminology and whether or not the words we use would have a harmful effect.

2) AWARENESS – While listening, watch for the body language of the other person to see if anything you’ve said may have been taken harshly by the other person.  For example, did they increase the space between both of you?  Have they looked down for an extended period of time while you were talking?  Have they crossed arms and legs as a signal that they are closed off to listening anymore?  Body language helps reveal a great deal about how someone is feeling and what they may be thinking.

3)  TEST – This seems really simple to do, and yet most of us are not aware that the language we just used might be offensive to another person. Simply asking (testing) if what we have just said may have been received negatively offers the other person an opportunity to share their feelings and thoughts. Again, this seems simple, but it requires the person asking to be open to criticism, which is never easy…  None of us want to make mistakes and owning up to them is even harder. So, test the waters before jumping in.

4) TELL/TEACH – This is for the people that may have been offended.  Whenever someone uses language that is disturbing to you, it isn’t always incumbent upon the other person to do all of the above.  Sometimes, the speaker isn’t aware… in fact, sometimes we can all be clueless.  Letting people know what offends you, makes you feel uncomfortable or otherwise dissatisfies you is important.  By educating others that they have crossed your boundary, it helps correct the problem and ensures that we can avoid crossing those lines in the future.

5) ENVIRONMENT – Finally, always consider where you are, who you are around, and what topics might be sensitive for those around you. It is easy to get carries away with a conversation that heads into “dangerous” territory. Being aware of your surroundings, who is in the room with you and how what you’ve said might be taken out of context is just as important. If you’re in a crowded bar and you have to yell so someone near you can hear what you’re saying, all it takes is for the music to stop playing or for someone right next to the person you’re talking to, to hear what you’re saying and take it the wrong way.

It’s no fun to police ourselves, but it helps when we consider what we say can impact others. We all have trouble talking about sexism, racism, ageism, classism, ableism, anti-Semitism, and heterosexism. But if we don’t begin listening to others, open our minds to the possibility that we can change to improve conversations for everyone, and telling others how we feel, the conversation will continue to be muted.  We can all help in those situations by changing our language. 

Words matter. 

Thank you for reading.