If you’ve been following my posts for a while, you’ve surely read this is one before: words are powerful.
We may use them carelessly, but the messages can stick and inform/lead to/strengthen biases, prejudices, and judgments that can ultimately undermine acceptance and inclusion.
My mom is staying with us, and last week she (innocently) told my 9-year old that eating with her hands was ‘Barbaric” and when her granddaughter asked what it meant she said “uncivilized’. I cringed.
Some Context, and Mental Associations
My mother is 83 and European. She grew up learning strict rules about dining etiquette. I remember my Oma commenting on my posture at the dinner table when I was a child. So I understand where this comes from, and I know (because she has told me) that my mom considers how to hold a knife and fork properly (for example) to be a necessary life skill. And in some circles, it is.
But all I could think of when I heard the word was that in many cultures around the world, people eat with their hands.
And the mental association (negative) that my mom had just planted in my child’s mind about that.
My daughter will probably be ok, because her immediate response was ‘Well that’s hurtful!’, but mental associations are insidious and form without our conscious awareness.
Mental associations are the ways our brain puts two (often unrelated things) together.
Over time as these are reinforced through the world around us, they become short cuts our brain uses to make decisions quickly.
When we spoke about it, Mom said, ‘But we don’t eat with our hands here, in this culture.’
She has a point (except for fast food, and wings – to name a few).
But consider this (which she did).
The difference between saying:
Which could stick in my child’s mind (as it has likely stuck in my mothers from her upbringing) and inform the way she may (even unconsciously) judge other people from cultures where they do eat with their hands.
‘many cultures around the world eat with their hands. In our culture we use a knife and fork’.
Notice the difference?
But in the second case, there is no winner or loser, no ‘us and them’.
Just an awareness of difference and a both/and that allows us to co-exist.