Language reveals lack of respect

Posted July 20, 2010, at 7:29 p.m.

I love my readers. I imagine all writers do. I have a special affection for readers who write to me. Some view my writing positively, others, not so much.

Some of these correspondents have become friends. I look forward to their critiques, I learn their philosophies and I often think of how they’ll react when I write on a certain topic. I even nickname folks — like Mata Hari — a woman approaching retirement age who seems to take guff from nobody. She’s also a bit of a minx and I love that.

Now I used the term minx on purpose, even though I might have used it wrongly. Oh, you know us former female vice presidential candidates, we’re forever using the English language wrong. Of course delusional former VP wannabes compare themselves to century’s lived world-renowned British playwrights to justify grammatical faux pas while folks like me just put our tongue in our cheek and smile.

But this use of the English language thing is actually important to nondelusional folks. And Jim, one of my regulars, wrote to me concerned that he doesn’t know how to properly refer to women or how to treat us in today’s society.

Well, rule number one, don’t use minx like I just did — the term speculates on a woman’s sexual proclivity and is enormously inappropriate.

Let me give you some background on Jim. He doesn’t agree with a single one of my columns — definitely not last week’s supporting equal marriage rights. But he’s polite and patient and he makes his point without insulting anyone. Here’s an excerpt from his most recent letter commenting on my criticism of a homophobic nonprofit agency for co-opting the good name of NOW, the National Organization for Women.

Jim wrote, “I will comment on what NOW has done to me. I don’t know how to address a woman. Is she Mrs., Ms., Miss., Chairman, Chairwoman, Chairperson, or just ‘hey you’? Business letters were once addressed to Gentlemen for a long time which started when men were secretaries who are now called administrative assistants and [whose jobs are] now occupied mostly or entirely by females. How are these business letters addressed now? Gentlemen, Ladies, or Gentlemen and Ladies or another ‘hey you’? Do I hold the door for a woman now? Maybe a column by you can address these issues so some of us older males will know how to address these issues.”

Well Jim, just treat women with respect. Let’s start with the door question. If respect to you is holding a door for a woman, by all means hold the door. I hold the door for women and men if I get there first — unless it’s a revolving door. But you don’t have to take my word for it. According to the book “Etiquette for Dummies,” “gender is no longer an issue, rather whoever arrives at the door first should hold it open, unless that person is elderly…” and if it’s a revolving door a gallant person always goes first, “so you can push it” for others.

Addressing women is tough for a lot of people, me included. Especially when using the spoken word. I am prone to use terms like “chick” or “broad” and it really infuriates some of the broads I hang around with when I do so. Here there’s a pretty strict rule to live by: If you aren’t the same gender, race, religion, or class of people that you are referring to then don’t get cute with the terms you use.

Don’t use the N-word if you aren’t black. Don’t refer to people by the clothes they wear — this happens mostly when referring to religious customs derogatorily. And don’t call women girls, gals, ladies, broads or chicks if you aren’t a woman. Basically, never refer to a person’s gender, race, religion, or ethnicity as though you’re Mel Gibson.

And treat women like they are your equals. Never lump women in with despicable individuals the way the Roman Catholic Church did this week when they made it a religious crime on equal footing to ordain women or molest children.

Lastly, I write business letters all the time. I use the greeting, “Hello,” which doesn’t presuppose gender at all.

Pat LaMarche of Yarmouth is the author of “Left Out In America: The State of Homelessness in the United States.” She may be reached at PatLaMarche@hotmail.com.

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