Menu Sian Prior

Writer, Broadcaster, Singer, MC & Teacher

Goodwill to all people [December 24]

 Here’s a weird fact: a couple of years ago the most popular new emoji on the interwebs was that little face with the rolling eyes. You know the one – contempt embodied in a yellow circle. It should come with the sound effect of a sigh.

I thought about this emoji recently when I heard an elderly man farewell a woman with the words ‘good girl!’ The three of us were in a lift together and as the silver-haired gent exited, the woman turned to me and rolled her eyes.

I was a champion eye roller when I was younger, and my ocular gymnastics were often provoked by language. I don’t mean ‘bad language’. Expletives have never worried me. I mean the kind of language that seemed like a relic of the patriarchal past. Men calling me ‘girlie’, for example, or ‘babe’. Bank tellers calling me ‘Miss’ when I was emphatically ‘Ms’. I couldn’t understand why they couldn’t understand that times had changed. Power is embedded in language. Language constantly morphs as power shifts or crumbles.

So imagine how mortified I felt earlier this year when one of my students pulled me up for using the word ‘prostitute’ in a class discussion. ‘It’s sex worker’ she said, rolling her eyes. She was right. Some part of my brain knew that, too, and understood why the old word should be avoided. It‘s about respect and empowerment.

But language is sticky and somehow the old word had got stuck in my ageing brain and then slipped out.

It happened again recently, when another student asked me to use the gender-neutral pronoun ‘they’ rather than ‘she’ when discussing their work. I understood why. One of the best things about 2018 has been the growing acceptance of the fact that many people identify as non binary – neither he nor she. But the following week ‘she’ slipped out of my mouth and they rolled their eyes. Just as I used to do.

Many of us will spend time this Christmas with elderly relatives and younger (possibly non binary) relatives. Not everyone will have kept up with the changes and mistakes will be made. Faux pas will be mistaken for micro-aggressions. Eyes will roll. Old dogs, it will be assumed, can’t learn new tricks.

They (we) can, but it takes time and patience and goodwill (to all people). Take care out there. 😉


(This column was first published in The Age and the Sydney Morning Herald in December 2018)