Word Choices to Build With

Words have power. Storytellers and poets know this. The right word – the right image – can shape a thought, or elicit an emotion. Words are actions and prayers and energy that we put out into the world. The power to give shape to an indescribable experience via metaphor is more than most of us are able to wield.

There are words that I do not choose to use.

No one “Mansplains” to me, or “Manterrupts” me.

Have I been on the receiving end of pedantic, condescending, unasked for explanations of things that I know perfectly well – or better than – the person explaining them? Duh.

Have I noticed that men will interrupt and talk over my words more often than they will my male colleagues? Or that I and my female counterparts speak less frequently in meetings in general? Sure.

Look, I’m a woman who has worked in technology-related fields for most of her 20+ years in the professional world. For the last ten, I’ve been in a largely male-dominated part of that world.  I have absolutely experienced this crap.

But I don’t use the words “mansplain” or “manterruption”. Why not? Because they don’t help the situation. In fact, the terms are just as rude, condescending, and divisive as the acts of explanation and interruption were to begin with.

No person of any gender is going to hear “don’t mansplain” and not get defensive.  Defensiveness does two things – it closes active dialogue and it shuts down empathy.

Focus on the goal.

I get it. Sometimes you just want the person who is doing this to shut up and go away, and by calling their actions by these terms, you’re hoping to get them to do so. If that’s your goal, okay, you do you. While this works for randos on Twitter, I don’t feel comfortable doing this kind of shut-down tactic with people I have to interact with regularly.

What do I want? I want to be taken seriously for my expertise and understanding. I want my voice to be heard. If I’m talking about the experience of being on the receiving end of these explanations and interruptions, then I’m most likely looking for empathy.

If I put my counterpart on the defensive, I meet none of my goals. I will continue to go unheard, the person I’m speaking with has not empathized with me, and I haven’t gained any ground in terms of being taken seriously for my expertise.

To get taken seriously – take them seriously. No. Seriously.

Ask them a question about the topic. Get their opinions. Find out where they got their information.

An example of a few of these that I’ve used successfully in the past:

  • “Really? Did you read that in the article published by XXXX? Because I reached out and talked to them about that specific test, and their follow up tests, and learned quite a lot about it that’s not in the article. Let me know if you want me to share those insights with you.”
  • “Hm, that sounds out of date. What sources do you use for your information?”
  •  “That’s really interesting. I looked into that exact thing about three years ago, and it didn’t bear enough fruit to be worth the effort. Do you have new test results we can talk about?”

I’m assuming that these people telling me things have done some reading. That they have learned something about what they are talking about. I’m treating them with respect.  And, at the same time, I’m letting them know that I have insight about the topic that they might not.

Nothing makes a know-it-all stop talking like not knowing it all. (as a total know-it-all, trust me, I know.  😉

To get empathy, ask for empathy. Directly.

“I am asking you to hear me and accept that my experience is probably different from yours. I’m asking you to listen, please. It’s important to me that you understand how I feel about this.

The above is very very hard to actually say out loud.  You have to really care about that person, and want to be vulnerable with them. They have to care about you enough to be a little uncomfortable with learning that the world isn’t shaped only in the frame of their own experiences.

It’s also really important to say to certain people in your life.

Do your words build or destroy?

We need words to help us shape the world around us – to give life and validation to our experiences.  Just as I don’t want to use pejorative slang terms about ethnic groups, I don’t want to make the men in my life feel offput and defensive by my language. This is especially true if I’m asking them to change behavior that’s been okay all along.

I am trying to use words that create and foster understanding. Words that build connections between people.

What do you think?

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