Events over the past few years have demonstrated that how we say things can change our view of them. For example, a parent recently told me that her son “has anger issues.” Her comment referred to an unexplained, and frankly rude, outburst from him when his grandmother inquired about how he was feeling. There’s a big difference between “Joey has anger issues,” and something more to point, like, “Joey, was rude.” Or, “Joey overreacts.” Or, “Joey chooses to take his stress out on others, and that isn’t right or fair.” There are numerous other examples, and this psycho-speak is so widespread that we barely notice it anymore – unless we actually want to see something objectively. “I have anger management problems” is nothing more than feel-good code for “I don’t control my anger well.” Or, “I have irrational outbursts; I should stop that.”
One of my longtime favorites is “I have attention deficit disorder.” An entire psychiatric, educational and pharmaceutical industry has grown out of that one, and without getting into whether ADD or ADHD even exist (that’s for another column), why not just say, “I sometimes get distracted.” Or, “I try to focus on too many things at once, and it usually doesn’t work out very well.”
Another one I hear in my office is, “So-and-so’s addicted to drugs/alcohol.” Well, that may or may not be true, depending on exactly how you define “addiction,” and at what point you consider something addiction. This oblique way of speaking raising more questions than answers. Wouldn’t it be interesting if we could simply state the facts, whatever they are, and however it’s appropriate for the people we’re addressing?
Is it shameful for a person to say, “I abused cocaine”? Not shameful at all, especially if he or she stopped it. It’s actually honorable, because it shows that that he or she has respect for life. “I used to drink daily. Now I don’t.” Sounds upstanding to me, so why not just stick to the facts? People can respond – or not respond – however they wish. If you make yourself clear, then you’ve done your job. So what purpose does all this labeling serve? Well, I think we know what purpose it serves, so let me rephrase: What rational, life-advancing, enlightening or empowering purpose does it serve?
Words and labels ultimately refer to concepts. Concepts are a distinctively human method of cognition, understanding and survival. I’m all for cognition, and I’m not against labeling on principle, but when fake labels or pseudo-concepts are used to mask, minimize or cover something up, then it becomes the interpersonal and psychological equivalent of George Orwell’s “1984,” where words come to mean nothing other than what “the authorities” want them to mean. Sound familiar?
The antidote to this is simple. It’s called objectivity, i.e., saying what you mean and meaning what you say. We need to stop being afraid to identify and clearly vocalize what’s actually going on. If you’re reluctant to share information about something, then don’t say anything. But if you want to get a point across, don’t engage in vague feel-good speak that ultimately says nothing.
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