The Need to Specify


I’m starting to take note of how specific people get in describing people things, or which of the many applicable terms they choose to use. A coworker talks about her sister and her “common-law” – not adding husband/spouse/partner to that, or using any of the terms individually. It’s only the qualifier that’s used, even though that makes virtually no difference in present day reality both legally and culturally.

In conversation it’s much easier to say “husband” or “partner” – “spouse” may be a bit too formal or dismissive of any personal relationship to a brother-in-law as this case may be. Perhaps there’s still a sacredness to this coworker that she and her husband went through the process of ceremony and vows. She isn’t saying “common-law” dismissively – at least not on the surface – but they could mean very different things to her, and perhaps “partner” does as well.

That’s merely a choice out of many options, as there needs to be some way to describe people’s family status. What’s even more curious to me, and a deeper issue that clearly needs to be dug up and deconstructed, is when people use group qualifiers. Specifying that at a certain stop light it was an aboriginal man who offered to clean your windshield is really not necessary in most contexts. It’s a way of distancing oneself from the other characters in a story being told, differentiating the in-group from the out-group. Making one’s race the key to that description is prejudice that people perhaps know they have but don’t see as being wrong because, well, it wasn’t the man being aboriginal that made this story but rather that he was trying to make a buck off of standing at an intersection holding a squeegee.

(“Squeegee kid” was a common phrase about 10-15 years ago when this was an issue in public discussion, but from my recollection the stereotype was that of counter-culture young white people, in an area of town that isn’t poor.)

I don’t recall if “probably drunk” was also used in the squeegee story, but it’s been used in conversations before. Talking about a person and saying she or he is “probably drunk” is usually relevant, but adding an age or race or class qualifier to that as well speaks volumes about what people believe they have in common with their audience. The words people use to tell their own stories come from how they see it in their own minds, and how they interpreted it as it was happening. They’re a window into how they generally perceive the world. The qualifying words that are chosen expose the prejudices of the storyteller, and the tone and context establish how damaging those prejudices are.

In some conversations these qualifiers are important, or necessary. When awards shows nominate a diverse representation but the winners are the status quo, we need to talk about this in specific terms. When the context of one relationship needs to be specific to contrast with another, we need to keep on the same page with specific terms. But casual chit-chat is casual chit-chat. Specifics aren’t necessary, yet they’re used. They’re used with the assumption that the listener will understand the situation better in a context that includes these details, because it’s implicit in the hierarchy embedded in our minds. We’re carriers of systemic oppression, knowingly or not, and these unconscious habits of communication spread that around.

Our minds turn down in small talk. That’s just what it is. It exposes what we think but don’t think about – prejudices, insecurities, ignorance, habits, and assumptions. Like Tobias Fünke in Arrested Development, we should consider recording ourselves for a day and really thinking about how we phrase things…but perhaps, unlike Tobias, actually learn something from it. Tobias, you blowhard.


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