Dismissive Language

Dismissive language harks back to my post about microaggressions. It’s very easy to accidentally say something dismissive without realizing it. The most common examples of dismissive language I encounter are in descriptions of complex topics, often with the words “just” and “should”. For example, “All you need to do is just git rebase and everything should be fine” or “Just change this setting in your config and it should just work”. These constructions trivialize the listener’s problem and imply that they are stupid for not being able to figure it out on their own. (I’ve given technical examples here, but I imagine that this can happen in any context with complexity, like knitting or wet labs.)

I think it’s a good practice to try to completely remove the word “just” from your vocabulary, and watch your usage of the word “should” as well. At a fundamental level this is about putting yourself in someone else’s shoes, thinking about whether what you’re saying is appropriate given their level of experience, and making sure you’re not going to make them feel dumb by making something that’s actually hard/complex sound like you expect it to be obvious.

This is something we worry about a lot in Software Carpentry because we’re teaching complex computing topics to novice programmers. In fact, we recommend instructors completely avoid the word “just”. We discuss this a little in our instructor training materials:

Software Carpentry’s founder recently put together a short, 2.5 minute video giving examples of many of things you should not do when explaining complex topics to novices, such as using jargon and trivializing complexity. It’s worth a cringe-inducing watch:

The Recurse Center’s social rules also provide some great examples of things not to do: https://www.recurse.com/manual#sub-sec-social-rules

Note: This is based on a series of posts I’ve been putting together at work to educate coworkers on diversity and inclusion topics.

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