Words Matter: Some Ideas On Saying Stuff Without Being A Crap Person

Note: Discriminatory language is used – as examples of what not to say – in this piece.

Words really, really do matter if you fancy going about life in a kind and compassionate manner. Language has the power to hurt and exclude – sometimes without us realising it – and the quest to speak inclusively and harm less is an important one when it comes to the words we choose.

Snowflakes unite!

I know there’s a real tendency – a default response even – to say that things are overthought, too PC, that people are snowflakes and that things are reaching peak sensitive. But I don’t think that’s actually what’s going on.

What actually seems to be happening is that the internet has supercharged our ability to converse and share ideas. What may have taken decades to nut-out over plodding conventional and curated media (think newspapers and talkback radio) is now busting out all over and hurrying things the gosh darned up.

Now there are many, many voices all over world wide web, with many of the most interesting – and questionable – rising to the top. Concerned (and proud!) snowflakes are often at odds with the dismissive ‘toughen up’ brigade. And we’re bundling decades of social evolution into mere years, from what I can see.

The feverish us-or-them nature of many of these speedily evolving discussions often leave spectators confused, feeling like they need to pick a side –  and possibly unable to make any sort of move, for fear of being shot down or making a mistake.

But the GOOD thing is that if we let the dust settle a bit, there are some strong arguments for getting in there and getting involved.

Whether you are a snowflake or in the toughen up camp, making some changes, learning more, including others and being sensitive makes the world a better place. Why the heck wouldn’t we want that?

Our use of language is a particularly easy way to do better from this very moment on – in our own corner of the world.

Here’s some I prepared earlier

Let me start by saying that I have been challenged about use of various words and expressions a few times over the years, and my inbuilt response was often – defensive! I’m kind of embarrassed to admit that, but I am learning on my feet and I admit that I haven’t always been as thoughtful with words as I should.

Don’t get me wrong, I’m not taking about obvious slurs or offensive language. I don’t make a habit of that. What I’m talking about is (possibly) less glaring words that have slipped into common conversational Australian (and other?) English.

Words that are easily substituted with something much more appropriate.

Here are a few of my own stuff ups, so you can see what I mean.

“Lorelei Gilmore is my spirit animal!” – culturally insensitive
“Yas queen!” – cultural appropriation
“Hi guys!”  – many people are not guys, Pip. Try ‘Hi everybody!’
“Let’s make a tipi!’ – nope. But we can make a tent! Again, not my culture.
“A junkie is shooting up on my doorstep” – This is a slur. (I actually said PERSON, but you see what I mean. It’s easy to say ‘junkie’.)
“Hello girls!” – some of those people may want to be referred to as grown women, Pip.
“That guy is crazy” – ‘unpredictable’ or similar would be better, perhaps?
“Are you deaf or something?” – insensitive and just not necessary. (Okay, I didn’t really say this one, but you get the picture!)

I didn’t mean it like THAT

Very often we use words or expressions because they’re just second nature – and we don’t even think about their deeper meaning. But switching them out for something better is a hat tip to a kinder, more inclusive world.

Some expressions are appropriated from other cultures and best avoided – for instance the ‘spirit animal’ one I mentioned above. After pouting a bit about it – ‘I didn’t mean it like that! Everyone says it’! – I noted that it IS insensitive and changed my approach.

Some words refer to (or once referred to) health-related issues or disabilities but are used flippantly in conversation – crazy, mental, lunatic, dumb and idiot for instance. I am guilty of using many of those in a ‘light-hearted’ way. It wasn’t until I recently read an update on Twitter from a disability activist who urged people to rethink the casual use of words that might refer to mental illness, that I noted this. It quickly made sense. Why wouldn’t we want to do better?

Some people take perfectly positive words that relate to race, gender, body shape, age, sexuality or disability and turn them into a slur – gay, lesbian, autistic, insert race, for instance. Don’t EVER do that. Ugh. Perhaps you have noticed this in your own travels – in real life or online – or even been the target of this kind of terrible treatment? (Click the links to hear from people who have/more, via Twitter).

These are just a few examples, of course.

Keep learning!

Not knowing how to use sensitive and inclusive language can leave us feeling a bit bewildered and we may respond with frustration when challenged. But the great thing is that we can learn how to better communicate, just by doing a bit of extra reading (or chatting to those who are clued in on this!)

It’s like anything really – once you realise you need to brush up, you put in the time and voila! You improve! It becomes easier! Ta-dah!

(NB: Saying ‘shut up special snowflake’ is not a strategy for improvement, it’s good to note. If you want to say that or shout ‘nanny state’ or ‘PC gone mad!’ you might be in the wrong place right now. Cheerio!)

If you’d like to find out more about inclusive language – and see if any words or expressions you are using could do with a rethink and exclude others, however unintentionally – there are heaps of resources online that can help.

Admittedly there is a lot to learn, but it’s up to us to get educated and there is no time to waste.

“Don’t be so afraid of saying the wrong thing that you don’t say anything at all”

If you Google ‘inclusive language guide’ there are lots of resources online and the general advice is to be open to new-to-you ideas: loosen up, listen and learn!

The RMIT Inclusive Language Guide is a great place to get started.
The Diversity Council of Australia has some bright ideas, too.
I found this inclusive language resource at The Australian Network on Disability.
And this piece on cultural appropriation might be useful if you want to think about how you feel about using words or expressions appropriated from other cultures (I am guilty of this. Ugh.)

And really. I am not the expert here, obviously. I’m just saying – this is a thing I am wanting to do better at, maybe you feel the same. I am learning on my feet and trying hard.

If you have any ideas/writing on adopting more inclusive language or words/expressions that often slip by, I would love to hear about that (if you fancy sharing!)

You know, we ADORE it, absolutely LOVE it, when people master language in film, books, music. We are so freaking impressed! Of course we should apply the same expectations of using words well in day to day life! Why wouldn’t we?!

Let’s start with us, right now!

x Pip

PS: Also let’s face it, being politically correct is JUST FINE! We go through life resisting all kinds of urges for the benefit of ourselves and others. It’s part of being a responsible, self-actualised human being!



  1. I try to challenge people on the use of the word ‘gay’ as in ‘that’s so gay’. I simply ask them how is it gay? I find then that most people will stop and think. It also opens up a conversation and I tell people I find this offensive as my son is gay and perhaps they could use a different word. For the most part people are really responsive and happy to take on board what I have to say. If you do this though make sure you have prepared arguments because people feel defensive, but once they realise you are not attacking them but trying to understand why they use the word, they are open to listening to why it is hurtful to you.

  2. Thanks Pip! Like you, this is something that I’m trying to understand more, and to be more careful and thoughtful with. I also acknowledge that this is sometimes (often) hard – as our understanding changes, the “rules” can change, and different people and communities can have different perspectives. I’m trying to remember that often the most important thing I can do is listen more.

  3. Pip, I think this article is excellent. We do all need to think about the language that we use.
    I particularly dislike “political correctness” being used as an expression to put others down – wouldn’t we WANT to consider the feelings of others? Isn’t that what makes a civilised society? Too right I want to get things “politically correct”!
    There is always more for us to learn, and it’s great to recognise earlier mistakes and do things better.

  4. Hmmmm. Some of this is worth thinking about and some really is a little problematic. I’ve spent my life being a defender of the underdog, taking on bullies and trying to get ridiculously uninformed people to think about issues more deeply. BUT….. there are some things that I find a little bit hard to swallow. We live in a world where we encourage embracing difference; we’re asked to welcome other races, religions, cultures. But where is the line drawn in terms of cultural appropriation. We can enjoy the cuisine from another country and this is encouraged. It’s ok to cook it ourselves at home? Is it ok to open a shop cooking that food if you aren’t of that heritage (eg. Mexican restaurant?). For school dress-up day it is not Ok to dress in a national/heritage costume if it’s not your own? Or is it Ok if it’s a more Western culture as opposed to a non-western culture (eg. Dressing up as a little dutch girl [OK} compared with dressing up as a native american [not OK]). Some people say braiding hair is cultural appropriation? Which culture – many peoples have used braids. Is it only if it’s multiple mini braids ie a more “non-western” version. When is it celebrating things from another culture and when is it cultural appropriation/ insensitive/racist? It’s hard because it’s not black and white (I think this is where the snowflake stuff comes in – the two extremes clashing). Surely there is a middle ground where genuine interest and respect for another culture can be be celebrated without hand-wringing. Any use of cultural /racial items for the purpose of mocking/ridiculing is of course not Ok. Some of what I’ve said is a question as much as a statement. It’s hard for us (not of a particular culture/heritage) to argue against someone of that heritage saying something offends them and yet I think there is a case, in certain circumstances to at least question someone’s offence or indignation about something without backlash.

    1. Thanks so much for reading it, Bron! x

  5. I will admit, I get VERY confused about cultural appropriation. I understand what it is but I’m still confused by it & that makes me feel dumb & uneasy. I’m almost too scared to say/write my thoughts because 1. I don’t want to be attacked 2. I often feel free speech is only ok when you are agreeing with the majority 3. Questioning something when you genuinely are trying to understand something often makes people jump to conclusions about you & then you are attached.
    I wish more people understood that for the most part people aren’t jerks but that they are uniformed & still learning.

    1. That should be uninformed !!!!

      1. This is an interesting piece – which talks about thinking about the power dynamic when considering borrowing from other cultures. It helped me to understand – and also to realise that this issue is not meant to ‘trip us up’ but rather to be more conscious of cherry picking ideas, words, things from other cultures with no real understanding of that culture – for our own gain/a laugh/entertainment. If that makes sense!!


    2. I wonder too Reannon if it’s a more confusing concept for some of us because we don’t identify with any strong cultural customs? I think that is what it is for me anyway.

  6. Carly also shared this link with me on Facebook, in case anyone wants to have a read:


    She highlighted this bit in particular – about using the term ‘disabled people’ NOT ‘people with a disability’:

    “From a social model viewpoint, disability is not something people have (we are not people with disabilities), but is something done to people with impairments. People with impairments are disabled by poor or non-existent access to the public places where ordinary life happens and by the condescending or unwelcoming responses of those who occupy these places.”

  7. Can I also add – it’s nice when people listen to how those of us want to be referred to. So, say if I say “I’m a disabled woman”, please don’t correct me to say I’m a “woman with disability”. While that’s also a good term to use, it doesn’t account for the social model of disability. Thanks again for starting this convo on your blog!

  8. Thank you for writing this Pip Lincolne. I talked about the way people are speaking about Donald Trump in derogatory ways in my recent Progress speech – and the feedback was that people got it. I hope people are more mindful as these conversations continue

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