My last post looked at how the word ‘user’ might be falling out of favour, being replaced in some
instances by the words ‘learner’ and ‘customer.’
I framed this as a positive move, but have since had reason to question this assertion after seeing the reactions of a few international colleagues who also work in the plain language biz. While at first it seems that dropping the word ‘user’ aims to humanize and respect people, it could indeed be that more manipulative intent is at play.
As Nigel Grant of Nigel Grant Training Ltd. asserts, the word ‘customer’ can have nefarious interpretations:
“Interpreting a relationship through a commercial idiom relegates rather than elevates both sides of the arrangement. I’m not a customer of my local council, except in the sense that I pay my council tax. The tax is a compulsory civic contribution, not an optional commercial contract…If I have to be a hospital patient, I’m not a customer, except that I’ve paid my taxes…”
“Much of our world esteems commercial success above intangible social involvement and relationships. Let’s aim to use language that restores human and civic relationships to the top of our priorities. Commerce is necessary, but its language surely shouldn’t be a yardstick.”
And where do plain old people fit in?
Another colleague puts it more bluntly, saying that ‘person’ and ‘people’ is the most dignified way to describe those we serve without limiting their dimensions.
He adds that, no matter what label you choose, speaking about someone in the third person is just plain demeaning; the imperative voice — which talks directly to the person or people in question — is preferable, in his view.
So how do we know if we’ve done the right thing by our readers?
It’s true that, no matter what term we choose, we will often get blowback from someone who feels that they’ve had a label slapped onto them. Often the best way to respect those about whom we write is to let them choose how we will identify them — with the caution that within any social group, there will still be people who disagree on the best term to use.
On the other hand, we cannot get so trapped in ‘analysis paralysis’ or the need to be politically correct that we end up with blandified language that means nothing to anybody — like the folks at the UK Professional Association of Teachers who are trying to ban the word ‘fail’ from school report cards. C’mon already!
In my view, the best path is to do our best to be respectful and positive, and be prepared to take responsibility if our choice of words offends anyone in our audience. We will never please everyone, but at least let’s be conscious that the words we use have power to influence people’s perception.