Say This, Not That: Better Choices for Inclusive Language

Yi Shun Lai3 minute read

Sometimes we say things that are hurtful. Here’s what to say instead.

“That’s just crazy.”

“How lame.”

“I got gypped.”

You may not know it yet, but these common idioms can be deeply hurtful for folks who suffer from mental health issues; folks who are disabled, and people of Romani descent, respectively. And yet, these phrases are common parlance in English. (We’ve all used them, or something like them, before.) You might be tempted to feel defensive about using them, or you might think that they’re truly so common that you can’t escape saying them.

It’s okay to feel defensive. Getting called out for hurting someone’s feelings shouldn’t feel good, because actually hurting someone’s feelings doesn’t feel good. And if you think it’s “normal” to say these things, you’d be absolutely right. There’s a reason we all know what they mean, without anyone having to explain: “Crazy” means something’s truly outlandish, or unbelievable. “Lame” can mean anything from pathetic to not worthy of your time, in a truly disparaging way. Getting “gypped” means you got cheated.

Hopefully now you begin to see how these words might be hurtful. Their normalcy is the very thing that keeps them in everyday use. This is a part of what psychologist Beverly Daniel Tatum calls “smog”—these words and their meanings surround us as a part of our culture. But you know what? Culture is always changing. And we can challenge ourselves to say what we really mean, rather than falling back on boring old clichés.

To get you started, we built you a handy cheat sheet. And here’s a step-by-step guide for getting better at not using phrases that might be hurtful:
First, pay attention to the times when you feel tempted to describe something using one of these phrases. Then, ask yourself what you really mean. Take your time. It’s okay! Your conversational partner’s not going anywhere. The email or Slack message you’re typing will still be there when you come up with the perfect word. And if folks do ask why you’re taking so long to come up with the perfect word, well–there’s nothing wrong with trying to come up with the perfect word, is there?

After all, no one is just “happy” or “sad,” are they? We are elated, joyful, content. Or we are dejected, morose, full of ennui. Learning how to get specific, and bucking that cultural smog, is a great way to keep growing.

CIPT Say This, Not That chart with multi-colored blocks for each category. Text contents in the table below.
Instead of…Say This!
Blind SpotsAreas of ignorance
Gaps in understanding
LameNot helpful / useful
Fell on deaf ears /
Turn a blind eye
Ignoring the matter

Remember, using language that could be harmful to others isn’t about your opinion of the words or phrases. It’s about being considerate of the impact our words may have.

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Yi Shun
LaiWorkshop Developer and FacilitatorShe/Her

Yi Shun Lai (say “yeeshun” for her first name; “lie” for her last) has certificates in diversity and inclusion from eCornell and inclusion in organizations from the University of Michigan. She has worked to forward diversity and inclusion efforts in publishing, humanitarian aid, and higher education. She is the author of a novel and a memoir and teaches in the MFA programs at Bay Path and Southern New Hampshire Universities.

See all articles by Yi Shun

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