Communicating About What Hurts


I was interviewed by Dear English Major recently about my career. It’s been gratifying to see an uptick in this site’s visits, so if you are new to my page, welcome! I appreciate your taking the time to read it. Of course now I’m about to venture into a topic that might be off-putting to some of you. I hope you’ll read this with an open mind: my aim is to open, not close, the lines of communication.

How I became a troublemaker

In the wake of that posting, someone on Twitter retweeted the link with two additional words: “Trigger warning.”

As I understand it, a trigger warning is something akin to a movie rating on conversational topics, i.e., “This conversation is rated PG due to mentions of violence, derogatory remarks, and mild stereotyping.” Or, more seriously, “This post might touch on issues of mental illness, sexual harassment, or racism.” The concern being that some individuals have experienced these legitimately bad situations, and the way certain people talk might “trigger” an anxious, fearful, or flashback reaction.

So if I’m to interpret the other commenter’s post correctly, something in my interview could require a trigger warning. I’m not certain exactly what in the interview caused the poster to issue this tweet. I will freely confess to being a middle-aged white dude whose last experience in the academic world was 14 years ago  (going back in next January, though, so I’m sure I’ll learn more very shortly). Note that I said the academic world. That’s because most folks in the professional world do not use this term. If they do, it’s usually a term of derision. I also admit that the poster might have been tweaking me. I’m responding anyway.

Why this sort of thinking is bad for everybody

None of us comes with a warning label. Unless we wear t-shirts daily declaring, “I’m a victim of bullying” (which I was) or “I’ve got an eating disorder,” or “I’ve lost a job due to racial discrimination,” the average person has no idea what’s going on with any other stranger’s life. We interact with coworkers, service workers, managers, clients, and people on the street each in our own way because we have something to say to them. Assuming we’re being polite, we shouldn’t have to worry about setting off some sort of hostile reaction because we brought up the wrong topic.

I’m concerned about this sort of thinking because it can cause people not to speak truthfully or clearly, (even politely) if they are constantly walking on eggshells every time they speak with someone. If you are facing serious issues in your life (racism, sexual violence, abuse, discrimination), by all means they should be addressed, by legal or therapeutic remedies. However, using your situation as a way to silence all discussion about a topic germane to your job is off-putting and counterproductive. Nor should you employ trigger warnings or their older cousin, political correctness, as a weapon for silencing opinions that merely differ from yours. That’s a great way to find yourself unwelcome at work-related social events.

If you subscribe to trigger warnings as a legitimate social tool, you’re also subscribing to the belief that you are incapable of responding to the unpleasantness of the world without imposing some sort of legal remedy. Given this sensitivity, how would you be able to listen to the news? Read literature? Stay informed about the world?

And now will come the inevitable denunciations saying, “But you don’t understand! You just don’t get it! You’re a privileged white male who hasn’t experienced X, Y, or Z!” In most cases, I’d plead guilty, though I would take issue with the term “privileged,” too. However, I have had to deal with my own hot buttons as well–workplace bullies, for example–and my response has been to push back against their behavior–firmly, directly, and politely.

I also interact with individuals who have experienced many of the evils our species creates. Their stories horrify and sicken me. And yet these same individuals have not screamed me into silence for daring to bring up an unexpectedly unpleasant topic. They live their lives and inspire me with their poise, class, and courage.

Plus, there’s simply this: How do you feel when trigger warnings are used on you? You resent it, do you not? Do you want your thoughts and speech policed at every turn? You shouldn’t.

Take the time to educate others

Usually, the people who told me their stories of sexual assault, racism, or domestic violence were not doing so to address a “trigger” of theirs, though that has happened. Regardless, my reaction was the same afterward: I’d go out of my way to be nicer to that person once I knew. People are often more understanding if you explain and discuss rather than shout or lecture.

Honestly, a lot of this problem can be solved by simple politeness and good manners: don’t tell crude humor, tell off-color or discriminatory jokes, don’t make blatantly offensive remarks, don’t spout off about sensitive topics around strangers, don’t violate others’ personal space. And on the flip side, if you don’t like what or how someone is saying something, take them aside, explain directly what bothers you, and suggest how you’d prefer they’d behave instead. If they won’t change their behavior, avoid the person in question. If they won’t change their behavior or their proximity, push back or consult the authorities. And yes, I’m sure some of you reading this are saying “Easy for you to say!” again. I’m offering suggestions for maintaining a civilized society. It’s better to take constructive action than to be angry and try to micromanage what others say all the time.

The goal of this page is to help people function well in the world of work. I’m about as well-meaning a person as you’ll encounter in the business world. If you’re going to get upset about any unintended remark I make, you’re in for a real shock when you leave the university and encounter the serious jerks out there.

About Bart Leahy

Freelance Technical Writer, Science Cheerleader Event & Membership Director, and an all-around nice guy. Here to help.
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1 Response to Communicating About What Hurts

  1. Kurobana says:

    I’m a millenial and I didn’t see anything wrong with it… if all they left was the two words, best to ignore it. >.>;
    Sometimes people are right when they criticize you for being racist/sexist/etc, but it’s on them as critics to explain why…

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