Thursday, September 8, 2011

Issues with the Language of Dating Angst

An interesting discussion appeared in the comments section of my last post. It essentially considered casual phrases and words people use to describe others, which have attached to them a pejorative or derogatory meaning, sometimes unknown to the speaker saying them. Although these phrases come up in a variety of contexts, given the focus of this blog, I'll just stick to the dating/relationship context.

The conversation stemmed from this comment by 36andsingle:

I'm also less likely to date someone who lives in the suburbs (of my town, anyway, this doesn't always apply in other cities) because my experience is that suburban guys are really lame.

It sounds pretty innocent, doesn't it? And certainly, people use the word "lame" fairly often in describing both people and situations they think are boring or lacking depth.

Another reader, SnowdropExplodes, however questioned the use of lame, which led to a listing of lame's dictionary definitions. Which are the following:

1. crippled or physically disabled, especially in the foot or leg so as to limp or walk with difficulty.
2. impaired or disabled through defect or injury: a lame arm.
3. weak; inadequate; unsatisfactory; clumsy: a lame excuse.
4. Slang . out of touch with modern fads or trends; unsophisticated.

36andsingle writes that she meant number 4 when she made the statement quoted above, to which Snowdrop replied:

Definitions 3 and 4 are using "lame" as a derogatory term, and are discriminatory language against people with disabilities. Just because you can find the N-word in the dictionary, doesn't mean it's okay to use it. If you found the derogatory usage of "gay" to mean "boring or uncool" (as opposed to "homosexual") in a dictionary, would you be comfortable using that, too?

So, I'd like to sat that first off, this kind of stuff is really challenging precisely because the use of these words and phrases are so embedded in everyday speaking. If I had a dollar for how often I heard someone refer to something or another person as "gay" in a pejorative sense, I'd be ultra wealthy. And when it comes to people talking about their dates and relationships, there seems to be an extra charge because many of us place large parts of our identities, rightly or wrongly, within the context of intimate relationships. So when things aren't going well in that area of our lives, when we've been on dozens of dates or are with someone who isn't meeting our needs in any sense, then the nastiness tends to get ramped up.

Calling people on the use of pejorative or derogatory language is always difficult, but when it's in the context of talking about, for example, the long line of boring guys someone dated and is annoyed by, there's something more difficult going on. Partly because of what I wrote above, but also, I imagine, partly because it might be a surprising turn of conversation. You're talking about yet another shitty date, and suddenly someone says "Why did you call that guy faggy? What's up with that?" That kind of questioning might seem out of context. Furthermore, if you haven't really put much thought into a given word or phrase, it might seem like the other person is just adding insult to injury.

Having read numerous online dating blogs and forums over the past year, I have witnessed the ease in which people who are frustrated with dating and/or their relationships spew pejoratives. Some heterosexual men ooze with words like "cunt" and "slut," while some heterosexual women produce variations on the gay slur theme without blinking. And regardless of sexual orientation, words like "retarded" and "lame" are so commonplace that almost no one pauses to consider what's happening because the focus is on issues with dating and relationships.

The way I see it, though, the use of pejoratives is in part due to the continued, largely unexamined forms of oppression operating in our society, but also in larger part to the ways in which humans respond to troubles in dating and relationships by blaming and condemning the other. How often, for example, do you see or hear a complicated situation between two people reduced to "he's just an asshole" or "she's just a bitch"? I see it everyday online, and know from experience that it's plenty easy to find in the everyday world we live in. And although I have committed myself to refraining from the easiness of simply blaming the other for everything and condemning him or her, I don't always uphold that vow myself.

However, I do believe that we all have the opportunity to pause and reflect before submitting a comment, blog post, or other form of writing online. And as such, it seems to me that it's worth taking that opportunity to consider the possible impact of your words on others (as well as yourself). For example, I sometimes wonder if the almost continuous blaming of men or women for X,Y, or Z doesn't make it that much harder for those participating in said discussions to see what's actually happening on their dates and in their relationships. Consider that people gravitate towards those who hold similar views to them, and sometimes that simply reinforces habits that are keeping them away from happiness.

Over the winter, for example, I spent a bit of time researching Men's Right's Movement blogs as a counterpoint to various forms of feminism. What was interesting was that although I found myself agreeing with a few of the major points people were saying on these blogs, I also became aware that reading endless streams of comments filled with skewed views of women sometimes to the level of hate speech agitated me. And when I looked at those who were regulars on these blogs, I noticed that they formed a collective front against anyone who disagreed with them on any point. in other words, defense of the status quo vision became more important than any actual discussion and consideration of alternative views. The same sometimes happens on feminist blogs and forums, and I think it can happen with dating and relationship blogs and forums.

At the end of the day, most of us truly want to be happy, and that often includes having a loving, caring partner in our lives. And I'd argue that the vast majority of writing and comments about dating and relationships are coming from that impulse, no matter how twisted and messed up they might be. So, it's worth remembering that when responding to someone else. As is the fact that no one is perfect, and everyone gets frustrated to the point of blaming and distorting the truth at times.

However, one of the main intentions I had in starting this blog is to examine ways to have fully conscious relationships. To promote ways in which people can become more self aware, and also more aware of what's actually happening with their dates and/or partners, and within the relationships as a whole. Languaging plays a role in all of this, because our words help shape our worldview, whether we like it or not.

*painting by Francis Bacon


  1. Eh . . . some people are more sensitive than others. And, I think that diversity is more accepted in this day and age, so people are a lot less careful, or PC, about their language. People are desensitized. Is that good? I don't know. Personally, I see it people being more open to diversity and thinking it's not a big deal. And isn't that something we've been striving for? Equality? Or do people still want to be tip-toed around because of their race or sexual preference?

    Yes, on the blogs and in discussions with friends about dating, we do generalize, and we do get frustrated and say things about the opposite sex that might not be fair to all of them. But, as much as I don't like to stereotype, there are "types" of people out there. Over time, we learn to group people by their traits. Sometimes we're right and sometimes we're wrong. It's human nature.

  2. I think you're correct that some people are more sensitive than others, and I know that comments about people being "assholes" and "bitches" aren't going to go away.

    But it's also the case that language continues to be deeply linked to oppression. As far as openness to diversity, it really depends upon where you are at. There are still places in the U.S., for example, where people openly despise interracial dating, something supposedly of the past.

    In addition, I don't really think there's any justification for the ways people slop around gay and lesbian slurs for example, or words like retarded. Calling people out on these is a step towards equality in my opinion.

    When it comes to typing people, I think there is plenty of shorthand out there that doesn't slide into derogatory territory. Players. Golddiggers. EUM and EUW - emotionally unavailable men and women. Game players. Abusers. Energy suckers. Spineless. Coward. Commitment phobic. I could go on, but there are plenty of ways to do the kind of typing your talking about, and actually I'd say that some of the above phrases are much more descriptive than the slurs are. The slurs provide a bigger charge, and shock value, but they often don't actually get at what someone is reacting to about another.

  3. I wonder if younger generations have been taught to use the appropriate words by their PC parents -- mentally or physically disabled or even the clinical terms such as Downs Syndrome instead of retarded, homosexual or lesbian instead of gay, etc. -- and so these words just don't mean the same things to them as they did to us when we were younger. Gay used to mean happy, fag used to mean a cigarette or pile of sticks, bitch used to mean a female dog . . . words evolve, and become more or less "bad", depending upon the power we give them.

    I think area you live in is a big factor. Good point.

  4. @ 36andsingle:

    Personally, I see it people being more open to diversity and thinking it's not a big deal. And isn't that something we've been striving for? Equality? Or do people still want to be tip-toed around because of their race or sexual preference?

    It's easy to think it's "not a big deal" when you're not the target of oppression.

    Try to imagine living in a world in which your name, or a description of you, is used routinely as an insult. At least once a day, you hear yourself being used to call someone something bad, undesirable, or otherwise negative. Can you see how destructive and oppressive that would be in your life?

    If showing basic courtesy and respect is "tip-toeing", then yes, I think people should have to tip-toe around other people! Basically, as long as it's okay to use words like "retarded", or to use "gay" as an insult, then we don't, and can't, have equality.

    Incidentally, there's a difference between "gay" used to mean "homosexual" (which is perfectly accepted and acceptable) and "gay" used as an insult (which is not).

    I would add that the way "blonde" is becoming a term of derision is not, in my opinion, acceptable either, for precisely the same reason. If for any reason, the colour of a person's eyes were used as an insult (even, or especially, to people who didn't have that eye colour) then I would oppose that, too.

  5. I have red hair. So, I grew up being insulted because of the color of my hair. And, on tv, there are always the "ginger" insults and pube discussions. Questions about my temper. Etc., etc. I'm comfortable in my own skin. It truly doesn't bother me. Sure, when I was a kid I didn't like it. I mean, what 12 year old would like being called a fire crotch? But, 99% of children deal with teasing over something, and that was what I got to be teased about.

    I have gay friends, black friends, fat friends, etc. and it seems the ones who are most comfortable with themselves have the easiest time dealing with adversity from others, and ironically, deal with very little adversity overall. They can laugh at jokes about their sexuality, skin color, weight, etc. and don't take it personally. They are happy and get through life just fine.

    I've seen people walk around with a chip on their shoulder, are super sensitive, have issues with everything that "might" be insulting, take everything personally, are easily offended, and then wonder why they have no friends, always have drama in their lives, have issues at work and never laugh.

    Personally, I'd rather just let it go, live and let live. That's my mantra. We'll just have to agree to disagree, Snowdrop! : )

  6. I'll let snowdrop answer your comment if he wishes to. The conversation you two are having is interesting to me.

    I want to just make the point that my blog post is mostly suggesting that people consider the impact of their language choices more.

    And to consider that there are words and phrases which do contribute to oppressive conditions, even if individuals within a certain group seem to handle them differently.

    I'm all about increasing awareness and attention skills because whatever people decide to do in their lives, those who pay closer attention to what's actually going on almost always - in my opinion - have healthier, happier lives. When it comes to dating and relationships, so much of the fail and misery seems to come down to snap decisions, not paying attention, willful ignorance, and imagining things that aren't actually going on.

  7. I would never presume to tell people how they should deal with oppression that I have not experienced myself. Even if I have suffered another form of discrimination, that doesn't mean that I have walked in their shoes.

    Why is it so hard to be respectful to people? It costs nothing to call people something respectful, and non-insulting, while all the people grousing about political correctness are usually harboring the particular prejudice the words reflect; otherwise, they wouldn't want to be thought disrespectful or biased solely on the basis of their language.

  8. @ 36andsingle:

    I suppose you've heard Tim Minchin's "Prejudice"? It seems particularly a propos to your remarks!

    On a serious note, though:

    It sounds almost as though your position would be, "If you don't like it, you should grow a thicker skin". I hope you can see why that doesn't come across too well.

    Nathan hits the nail on the head in his comment:

    I want to just make the point that my blog post is mostly suggesting that people consider the impact of their language choices more.

    And to consider that there are words and phrases which do contribute to oppressive conditions, even if individuals within a certain group seem to handle them differently.

    Paula's remark is also valuable in that regard. We don't have the right to police how others view the language that is used about them.

    All of which is actually a sidetrack from my main point. I wasn't talking about words used to insult gay people, or black people, or fat people (or, indeed, redheads). I was talking about the ways in which names for those people are used to insult OTHER people, who aren't in the group whose name is being used.

    When you dislike something, to say, "That is so gay!" is directly harmful to gay people, not because it is directed at gay people, but because it tells everyone else within earshot that it is OKAY TO HATE GAY PEOPLE. And you are telling gay people in the vicinity, that it is okay for them to be hated. How they take that is their business, but you shouldn't be sending out that message.

    Likewise, when you say, "That is so lame!" you are telling all the able-bodied people around you that it is okay to diminish and disrespect people with disabilities.

    You know, I don't think I can "agree to disagree". That said, I am just about out of spoons to spend on this conversation, so I will have to drop it.

  9. Is it really tough to get a boyfriend this question is much simpler but it is not really a tough job to find a perfect match. In my case it was much simpler than I ever thought. Life has been changed much in a couple of years and after my job and its been too tough too.

  10. You make a good point. My ex has a bad leg that is shorter than the other. So, in our family, we didn't throw the word "lame" around as much as people seem to normally do. We survived without it just fine, there are plenty of other four-letter words in the English language ;)

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