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Them and us

July 20, 2020

The other day I was having a conversation with my niece-in-law, if that’s a word, and she was talking about applying for a job as a school counsellor. The thing that was giving her pause was having to work with teenagers because, she said, ‘They’re so boisterous’.

I had a sudden revelation, and said, ‘Why use the word they? Why not say “We’re so boisterous at that age”?’

It was one of those epiphanic moments. I’ve always unthinkingly used they to refer to people of other age-groups than the one I myself happen to be in at the time of speaking. Everybody does. But, I now saw, it’s unnecessarily distancing, unempathetic and exclusory; it’s also not true to our experience, because we once were teenagers (and children, and infants) and we know what it was like. We haven’t all been old, but we (hope we) will be; we can both observe and imagine that future state. So we shouldn’t use they/them to talk about the elderly, either – that’s us, a few years down the line. This way of speaking and thinking would surely increase understanding and sympathy between generations.

My niece-in-law agreed. And she’s going to apply for the job. Hope she gets it.

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One Comment
  1. Mark Brafield permalink

    It’s funny you should write about this because I was thinking about something similar only yesterday. Sebastian Faulks was discussing the English novelist Henry Green, now largely forgotten except amongst the cognoscenti, and who Faulks champions as one of the great undiscovered novelists of the 20th century.

    Annoyingly, I cannot remember the exact quotations, but in his novel ‘Loving’, Green subtly performs a similar shift of person during the course of the novel to gradually bring us into closer sympathy with one of the characters. We start off regarding this woman as just another character in the novel, but we end up feeling that she has moved towards us, and is now closer to us than she is to the rest of the characters. We are more sympathetic to her than they are. It’s a clever technique.

    I shall bear this in mind when I discuss either teenagers or the elderly, both of which feature in my life at the moment, and will try to be more empathetic.

    Incidentally, on Faulks recommendation I read ‘Loving’. I thought it was awful.

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