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February 5, 2021

On the Language I Left Behind

Last year brought many changes in everyday life. With the lockdown due to pandemics and different politically charged events, not only the way we live has changed but also the way we communicate. Language has become a powerful tool freeing people from gender dynamics and liberating people of color from stereotypes. Tamika Lewis, clinical director and founder of WOC Therapy, spoke for the magazine The Byrdie, about what 2020 brought to Black women. 

I can’t forget George Floyd’s last words as he was pinned under the knee of a Minneapolis police officer. Pull-quotes from Vice President-Elect Kamala Harris’ acceptance speech in Wilmington flooded my social media feeds for weeks after she made the remarks. The word “coronavirus” became heavy and all-consuming.

Last year, a spotlight was placed on how we communicated, with masks hiding facial expressions and low-signal strength Zoom calls distorting our sentences. Now, in the first days of 2021, while others are making resolutions and road-mapping plans for the year ahead, the thing that keeps coming up for me is language. And as I reflect on a year when so many used their voices to bring about necessary change, there is some language I’m marking as discontinued.

“Just” (As a Hedger)
In the first few months of working from home, I found myself writing a lot more emails. Questions that could normally be answered with a quick walk down the hall were replaced with back-and-forth queries on the internet. Web-based correspondence substituted nearly all in-person interaction. And, I noticed there was some language that kept repeating itself:

I’m just checking in on …
Just wanted to see …
Just wondering if there’s anything …
Just a thought …
Just a few questions …

We use hedges, like the word “just,” to soften or express hesitation in what we say (“kind of,” “sort of,” etc.). We hedge to be vague or express politeness (“maybe it’s best if…”). So when I caught myself hedging at every turn, it gave me pause. I consider myself assertive. So, why was my language shifting to apprehensive and unsure?

From a linguistic standpoint, there is nothing “wrong” with these words, says Dr. Betsy Sneller, assistant professor of linguistics at Michigan State University. Furthermore, linguists stand behind the belief there is nothing inherently weak/bad/wrong about any piece of language. Things get complicated, however, when people add a measure of value or behavior to that language—like dubbing it the way women speak. “When people add social evaluation to language, it’s not inherently attached to that language,” Sneller explained. “It’s attached to who they think sounds like that.”

And it isn’t exclusive to women’s language creating the conditions for social injustice. “People of color are evaluated more strictly than white people,” Sneller noted. “Which puts us as speakers, as individual humans living in the world, in a tough situation.” That is precisely the situation I found myself in as I reevaluated my language choices. I had unintentionally fallen into a gender dynamic. And whenever we talk about gender, we are always talking about power, says Michelle Phillips, a liberation coach based in Seattle. For Phillips, words like “just” signify a need to feel believed, a need to feel qualified and justified and, therefore, worthy to say whatever it is you’re saying. In my case, instead of saying exactly what I meant, without the extra language, I was asking permission to take up space (go back and read those emailed phrases again).

The year 2020 gave Black women and other women of color a measure of flexibility to be themselves, says Tamika Lewis, clinical director and founder of WOC Therapy. “Not being so afraid to use direct language and worrying about being associated with the angry Black woman,” said Lewis. “And really challenging those myths and challenging people to dismantle those myths.”

Language is complex. And in a banner year for cancel culture, I am not advocating for “just” to be canceled altogether. It is not that simple (the Nike slogan “Just do it” is genius and should definitely stick around). I am advocating for an active practice of language, for a use of language that empowers us as individual speakers. When the word “just” flooded my vocabulary last year, it was in my best interest to stop and examine the choices I was making. Because language is something we do, says Phillips, citing Toni Morrison. “We attend to language because of the power that it has in our lives,” Phillips explained. “So as it comes out of our mouths, the power of language—of what I say—will shape what I do.”

The year 2020 was marked by historic and heartbreaking events. This, to me, is further proof that the power we have as speakers cannot be downplayed. And while the list of last year’s events that left me feeling powerless is overwhelming, I have learned to focus on what I can control. Thus, the word “just” as a hedger has to go.

The language will continue to change just as societies do. We can make sure that the way we speak doesn’t have anything to do with our gender or the color of our skin. The way we talk should be a reflection of our ideas and beliefs, and that is one of the main lessons 2020 taught us.