3 Phrases to Lose

By Rina Goldenberg Lynch

I want to share three common phrases that most of us use casually, without suspecting that they might land very differently from the way we intended.  The aim is to become more aware of the impact that our words might have and choose them more carefully with this awareness in mind.

The starting point to this discussion is context.  Context is the first consideration we ought to have when using language.  Think about it: if you were asked to tell a joke, would it matter whether the audience is a group of 10-year-olds or a rugby team?  Of course it would.  Context matters.

Similarly, when we talk to a person who is likely to have been on the receiving end of microaggressions (e.g. a young woman, a person of colour, or anyone from an underrepresented group), we ought to hear our words from their perspective.  Consider the following 3 phrases and how they might land.

1. “Where are you (really) from?”
In the past, this question would have been a staple in my conversational toolkit, especially if I detected an indication that the other person isn’t from the place in which we are speaking.  After all, I think it’s wonderful to have been brought up elsewhere!  I have a natural curiosity for different cultural norms and customs and am keen to hear about them.  So asking someone where they’re from seemed the most innocent, well-intentioned question.

But I should have known better.  Being on the receiving end of this question, I have not always felt welcome when I was asked where my accent is from, where I’m originally from or what ethnicity am I.

The fact of the matter is, no matter how well intentioned, these words convey an acknowledgement that the person is not like us.  Whether this question is perceived positively or negatively depends on the experience of the person being asked.  If, for example, you’ve grown up in the same country as the well-intentioned, curious asker, but they assume (on the basis of appearance, for instance) that you must have originated somewhere else, this benign question can feel alienating.

“So, what can we say instead?” I often get asked?

The answer is: say nothing.  Think about it.  Do we really have to ask this question?  And if so, why?  Often, this question is asked for purely selfish reasons: to satisfy our own curiosity.  If that’s the case, would it not be better to err on the side of caution and exercise patience?  Chances are, if we’re really curious, continuing the conversation is likely to disclose more information.

I have now banished this question from my casual conversations.  I also know of a large organisation – a global financial institution – that is training its staff not to ask it.  Hopefully, we’re not the only ones.

2. “You’re so tanned!  Is this your natural skin colour?”
Some of you might cringe at this, but you will be amazed at how many people utter these words, thinking nothing of them.  And why should they?  After all, they think they’re commenting on something positive.  They’re commenting on the beautiful skin colour of someone who perhaps has had to endure lots of negative treatment because of it.

A positive comment about someone’s racial characteristic is still a racial comment.  Is it possible to imagine what it feels like to hear this from the other side?  How often do you hear people commenting on white skin?

Similarly, phrases like My gay best friend or I have lots of black friends or I love your accent betray the fact that we think of these people as different from.  In this way, these phrases border on what we call othering.

Othering is when we put people into boxes that don’t fit our own definition of societal norms: people who are not like us and, as a consequence, should not be treated like the rest of us.  Phrases that could be perceived as othering can feel alienating, even when well-intended, so we should be extra careful with them.

3. “He’s the Black Sheep of the family.”
One of the most difficult changes to make is to understand that the colour black has a negative connotation in our society.  Think of phrases like blackmail, blacklist, blackballed. From a young age, we’re brought up with imagery that tells us black is not as good as white.

This is a hard truth to swallow. Nevertheless, it appears to be the case, as this devastating experiment with children demonstrates.  So, let’s do everyone a favour and minimise the use of these phrases in our language.

Language is a minefield.  It is so easy to misstep and say something that creates a tiny rift between people.  Tiny cracks grow larger and have the potential of becoming crippling.  And that doesn’t serve anyone.  So, if we can become slightly more conscious of our words and how they might be perceived by others, we have the potential of making our interactions more positive and reap the benefits of the trust that we can create with our language well into the future.