This Is Why The Language We Use Matters

by Mia Mercado

We’ve all heard that certain words aren’t “polite.” You’ve likely heard the phrase, “Oh, we don’t say that anymore” specifically in regard to ways we talk about other people. But word choice matters beyond simple social niceties. A recent study, for example, found just how powerful language can be, suggesting word choice like person-first language affects our levels of empathy. Words impact the way we think especially when we’re talking about one another — and that really, really matters.

The study, published in the Journal of Experimental Psychology, looked at how emphasizing individuality impacts perceptions of both experience, which is the ability to feel emotion, and agency, the ability to think and make decisions. (To clarify, a robot has high agency but no experience. Animals have much experience but little agency. Humans fall in the middle.) Essentially, what happens when individuals are framed as “people in a group” versus “a group of people”? What researchers found was significant.

Participants of the study were broken into three groups and told to evaluate people working for an accounting firm. The first group was asked about specific individuals in the firm, the second was asked about “an accounting company comprised of 15 people,” and the third was asked about “15 people who compose the accounting company.” The researchers looked specifically at how participants responded in the last two groups.

When framed as a individuals (“15 people who compose the accounting company”), participants were more likely to ascribe them the capacity to think and feel than when they were framed as a group (“an accounting company comprised of 15 people”). The study also conducted a follow-up test in which participants were more sympathetic of the “15 people who compose the accounting company” when they were told the firm went bankrupt.

By simply presenting individuals as “people in a group” versus “a group of people,” we increase our level of empathy in broader conversations about a population’s experience and agency. Basically, when we lump people together as a group, we’re less likely to feel empathetic and sympathetic toward them. While the study used hypotheticals, the results are significant when it comes to the reality of cultural conversations we’re currently having.

This Isn’t Just Arguing Semantics

This piece from Vox looks at the study in relation to how we talk about refugees. Vox spoke with psychologist Kurt Gray, one of the study’s authors. Per Vox, Gray suggests, “It is probably possible to increase empathy just by having politicians, journalists, or anyone else say ‘100 Syrian refugees in a group’ instead of ‘a group of 100 Syrian refugees.’”

The impact of person-first language also affects how we talk about mental illness. A study by Ohio State University found there to be a significant increase in tolerance when individuals are presented as “people with mental illness” as opposed to “the mentally ill.”

The language people choose to use when speaking about themselves, however, is intensely personal; there are arguments for both sides of the proverbial coin.

The Argument For Person-First Language

In favor of person-first language are organizations like The Arc, which works for the human rights of people with intellectual and developmental disabilities. The Arc emphasizes the importance of people-first language in their founding principles. They believe that putting a person first linguistically reminds us that people with disabilities are first and foremost people. Like the above study about how we talk about people with mental illness suggests, The Arc and organizations like it believe social attitudes, which drive things like public policy, are heavily impacted by our word choice.

The Argument For Identity-First Language

Person-first language isn’t unanimously seen as innately helpful or desirable, however. In fact, person-first language may not always put the person first. Proponents of identify-first language suggest that person-first language may further stigmatize disability. Being quick to “correct” someone when they say “a disabled person” has implications that “disabled” is a dirty word. It can imply that being disabled is “negative” or “bad” instead of a facet of someone’s life.

This desire to overcorrect is certainly present in the way we discuss race. The New York Times recently asked a group of people “What racial terms make you cringe?” While they may abide by things like The Times’ Manual of Style and Usage, not everyone is a fan of phrases like “people of color” and “half” or “non” when talking about race.

So, Which One Is Right?

Both, depending on the individual. The Mighty asked people with disabilities if they prefer person-first language or identity-first language. The result? Different people prefer different things. As the author of this piece from Think Inclusive states, “The key is to ask.”

While yes, impact usurps intention, it’s still important to ask ourselves why we want to use certain words. Is it because we’re uncomfortable? Is it because we’re trying to disassociate a group from the individuals who compose it?

Words matter. They can empower and validate as effectively as they can disenfranchise and dehumanize. Instead of asking ourselves if our word-choice is “polite,” it’s time we start making sure we’re simply being decent people.