Learning the Language of Abuse and Survival


I’m learning a bit of a new language at Spruce Run-Womancare Alliance.

Words can seem like one of those things that are so small our choices hardly matter.  Like a single vote in an election where millions are cast, it can be hard to convince yourself—or others—that everyday word choices make much of a difference.

But if you enter into the world of domestic violence advocacy, as I recently did, you are making a pact to weed out the small acts of violence and prejudice in your language that most people use without hearing them.  I know this because now I hear myself saying them.  I use it often when I’m trying to congratulate people: “Hey, you’re killing it!” or “Wow, you knocked that out quickly!”  I’ve had to stop myself a few times a day for months, and the words and phrases just keep coming.

Does it matter what advocates say?  It certainly does, especially when we’re on the hotline.

In hotline worker training, we ask everyone to examine the impact that their language has on our callers, and how often our language reflects a system which is in many ways more supportive of abusers than victims of violence.

More often than not, the people who call us are upset.  They may feel fed up, vulnerable, scared, sad, or exhausted.  We can support them by listening and, at the very least, not choosing words which reflect violence or judgement.

We’re taught to make sure to repeatedly use the caller’s name, because we know that abusers will usually call them by any other malicious word that they can think of, but almost never their name.  Callers may not have heard their real name in a while.  So yes, our word choices matter.

But does it matter what I say just among people I know?  Absolutely.  Chances are that you encounter someone who has experienced some kind of abuse—whether emotional, physical, sexual, or verbal—each day.

On your street, in the supermarket, at your place of worship, at a store, or at work, people who have lived with or are still living with abuse are all around you.  Maybe you’re talking to a friend but someone overhears you.  Maybe you’re talking to someone who is experiencing abuse and you just don’t know it.

We can unintentionally make someone’s life harder just by making casual references to serious emotional or physical abuse.  President Obama made just such a point about prison rape jokes recently.  Others have pointed out how language supports abusers and blames victims more generally.

Almost everyone makes these mistakes, but that means that everyone has some power to help stop abuse.  Stop using the phrases or jokes you wouldn’t want to repeat in front of someone who had experienced abuse.  It’s ok if you don’t get it 100% right every time, but try not to minimize the impact that this small ‘vote’ against domestic violence can have.