Blog | Jul 25, 2012 | 6 Comments

[Words Do Hurt]

As a professional communicator, you could argue that my speech should be more skillful than that of most other people. Frequently it’s not. This month, I’m working on removing some hurtful words from my vocabulary, because that old saying about “sticks and stones” is just not true.

Labeling people or things “retarded” or “lame” is just wrong.

It’s very embarrassing to admit that I have used these words as an insult. If you know me personally, you know that my everyday speech can be flippant, sarcastic, and laced with new and old pop culture phrases. I even say “Dude” in conversation—another habit I need to break. Maybe it’s a rebellion against the formality of language required for my work. I don’t know. But whatever the reason, it’s not an excuse call things “retarded” or “lame”—especially since my circles of friends and family have included many people who are both physically and mentally challenged, some severely so.

This is a form of bullying.

I was bullied on and off as a kid, and I do remember how that feels. Yet my careless speech could be considered a form of bullying. I was punishing groups of people who have specific physical or mental conditions as I criticized things that had nothing whatsoever to do with them: a movie I didn’t like, a meal that was bad, a style of clothing I thought was unattractive, and so on, ad nauseum.

I’ve already had to unlearn insensitive behavior and speech.

I grew up in the 1960s and 1970s. Times were different. Over many decades, my friends and I have worked to shed the entrenched language of racism, sexism, homophobia, and many other forms of intolerance, which we may not have learned from our liberal parents, but which pervaded our society. And in more recent times, we worked with our kids not to use insults like “that’s so gay.” My point is that this is the kind of habit I already know how to break. So I’m working on it, diligently.

Our everyday language can include or marginalize people. We should “choose to include” in all of our communications.

PostScript:  I once wrote a blog on [wise engagement] (skillful speech) and another on [respectful communication], which I still recommend to you despite this confession.

Image credit: Marcel Oosterwijk on flickr

Author: Claire Wagner

I'm a seasoned freelance writer/editor and an enthusiastic community manager. I'm passionate about developing and sharing good content.


Very interesting topic. But how far does it go? I was reprimanded for referring to something as “ghetto” by a Jewish woman for offending her culture. How about saying, “something is driving me crazy.” Is that offending the mentally ill? I never intend to offend anyone but I understand it’s how it makes them feel. How do you know? It is quite possible that almost everything I say is offensive to someone.


Claire Wagner Reply:

@Cindy Zbin, Cindy, you bring up a really good point. The same thing happened to me years ago when I said “Indian Giver” in front of someone whose mother was a Native American. Ghettos are where Jews were forced to live in most European cities despite some of them being quite wealthy. So using that term to describe extremely high poverty, blighted areas is really unfair. It is one example of how our language is littered with insults. Remember when we were kids and said we had gotten “jipped”? That’s how I thought it was spelled. I didn’t realize for decade that it was “gyped” and it referred to Gypsies. I think people are taking a closer look at language and finding lots of ugly things, many of which relate to race/ethnicity and disability. But each of us just does our best.


Cindy Zbin


All good points, and it’s important for us to be sensitive to other people’s personal perspectives. But, PLEASE don’t give up “Dude”. I love your “Dude”. I promise none of our old surfer friends will be offended.


Claire Wagner Reply:

Dude, you’re killing me! Lol.


Lisa Hettler-Smith


I appreciate your insights on being more thoughtful and sensitive regarding our choice of words. Thank you! At the same time, I think it is important to recognize the relevance and context of the communications. Speaking – and listening – with compassion, generosity and honesty is a goal I aspire to meet. I’d be interested in your views on how both speakers and listeners might make ever better choices about not just the words that are spoken (or avoided) but also how they are interpreted.


Claire Wagner Reply:

@Rick Fullerton, Rick, our language is challenged with many derogatory terms based on associating groups of people with stereotypical behavior or distasteful things. I think each of us could start by spending one or two days being mindful of adjectives, comparisons, and even cuss words or substitute cuss words in our speech – that’s where most of the trouble lies.

Next, we can focus on listening to others in a more careful way. In our faith community, we have all practiced deep/active listening where the listener does not interrupt the speaker. It is a true challenge for me to bring this skill over into my professional life, but I am trying. I found a couple of links that have good advice: and I think repeating back is an important skill, too, but you have to be careful not to be inflammatory and twist someone’s words on the way back because you disagree with them. When you repeat back faithfully and your interpretation is accepted by the speaker, then you can gently probe for better understanding.

I hope this helps a bit. There is a good deal of self-awareness and compassion in this process and it is challenging sometimes.


Rick Fullerton


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