Don’t offend anyone — and don’t communicate either

Today’s news brings word that Harvard University is allowing its students to pick the gender pronouns by which they would like to be called.

Humpty Dumpty

When I use a word, it means just what I choose it to mean — neither more nor less.

In addition to the traditional he and she, students can select the now commonly accepted they. Or they can select other, less well known options like ze, hir, and hirs.

According to a Boston Globe story, the move by Harvard “is aimed at increasing inclusion on the campus.”

I’m all for inclusion. Yet, as the old maps used to warn navigators when they approached unexplored territory, here be dragons.

Why? Based on what I know about human communication, I’d say that Harvard’s new policy will increase, not decrease, the odds of someone taking offense. And the long-term effect might be to shut down, not enhance, communication.

Communication depends on everyone having a more-or-less shared understanding of the language they use. If I use a word, I expect you to know what I mean, and vice versa. I don’t use obscure meanings — unless I’m trying to confuse or mislead you, which is the opposite of communication. I also make a good-faith effort to interpret your words in the way you intended to use them.

But unless I know all the nuanced rules for using words like ze, hir, and hirs, the risk of misunderstandings — and hurt feelings — increases. Will I need to learn a special argot just to communicate with people on the Harvard campus?

Sounds like a lot of trouble. Maybe I just won’t bother.

By seeking to create an “inclusive” atmosphere, by building a cocoon in which no one’s feelings are hurt, Harvard is actually increasing the likelihood that someone will take umbrage. And they might be discouraging people from trying to communicate at all.

5 thoughts on “Don’t offend anyone — and don’t communicate either

  1. Val Swisher

    Actually, it is very simple. All you need to do is ask someone what their preferred pronoun is. Then use it respectfully. And in technical writing, avoiding gender pronouns has always been a best practice.

  2. Sarah

    Sorry, Larry, you lost me on this one. Calling people by the name or pronoun that they want to be called by is just a simple matter of respect. Harvard is making it easier to be respectful of the wishes of the people in their community.

    1. Larry Kunz Post author

      Thanks, Sarah — and Val also.

      Everyone deserves respect, and I was wrong not to say that. But if I’m a professor or administrator who works with dozens of students, I’ll have a hard time remembering everyone’s preferences — especially when the pronouns are unfamiliar. From time to time I’m going to mess up. When I do, I hope that the other person will understand that I’m not trying to be disrespectful, and will respond with grace rather than taking offense.

      I guess it comes down to — and this is an honest question, not a rhetorical one: Do we really need so many words in order to be respectful? (Val, maybe you have the best answer: avoid using gender-specific pronouns, as we’re trained to do in technical writing.)

      1. Sarah

        I think as long as you try, your (and my) inevitable mistakes are less likely to give offense. My position of the extra pronouns is like titles–I use Ms. by default, but if someone prefers Mrs….or Doctor or Reverend…that’s what she gets.

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