How to speak open-minded

“Open-minded” is a term people throw around a lot without really thinking about what it means. A lot of people say they are open-minded when they are not, and a lot of people actually are a lot more open-minded than they come across because of what they say and how they say it. Case in point: “Some of my closest friends are gay.” A person who says that line could be a huge bigot, but they could also be well-intentioned and simply lacking the frame of reference to articulate what they mean.

It’s unfortunate when people who mean well misrepresent themselves. Assumptions get made, walls go up, and all of a sudden we are dealing with a confrontation instead of a conversation. The truth is that how we speak matters, especially when we are trying to work towards acceptance. I have been thinking a great deal about this, and I boiled it down to this: two very simple steps to learning to speak in a way that will make you sound open-minded.

Some, not all.

Don’t generalize. Learn never to say “women are … ” “black people do …” or “gay people think …” Not all women act alike, just like all black people do not feel the same way, and like all gay people are not the same. When you begin a sentence like that, you are making an assumption about an entire group of people, which is offensive and can lead to racism, classism, ableisms, ageism, sexism… all the bad isms. If you consider each and every person as an individual, and not a member of a particular group, all of that bad shit ends. Just adding the word “some” diffuses the offense of the statement and still lets you get your point across. Yes, some women are emotional. Some, not all.

There is no “should.”

There is no right way eat a Reeces, but there is also no right way to be a mother, no right way to be a man, no right way to be Jewish, etc. Unhappiness often comes from the pressure to conform to social expectations — to act masculine or feminine, to get married, to marry Jewish, to have kids, to be straight, etc. It doesn’t make anyone feel good to hear that they are doing it wrong just because it’s not how you would do it. And when you speak as though it’s a given that your way is the only correct way, you are invalidating the choices of others, and that is a from of disrespect. Saying that “Mothers should feel …” “Jews should do …” or “straight men should be …” is offensive not only because it violates the “some, not all” principle, but it presumes to suggest that you know better than someone else what is right for them. And trust me, you don’t. Just don’t say “should.” There is no “should.”

A lot of people don’t believe that it’s important to watch what you say. They call people like me the “PC Police” and assume I’m just trying to make the world a sanitized place where people can’t speak their mind or make jokes. The thing is, language really matters. If you make the effort to speak carefully, it demonstrates that you care how your words impact others. It shows that you are interested in learning and listening from those around you. It is a sign that you are open-minded and respectful.

But even more than that, learning to speak in a way that sounds open-minded might actually make you more open-minded. Training yourself to say “some not all” and never to say “should” may actually help you internalize the message: that we should not make assumptions about others based on the groups they belong to, and that there is more than one right way to be or do. Once you learned to stop voicing those assumptions, you may learn to stop making them altogether. Without those assumptions you are free to really listen, learn, and call yourself open-minded.

This may sound childish. It may sound obvious. But if you have ever listened to a friend unintentionally say things that made you cringe, these 2 rules could just be the key to helping them learn to sound as open-minded as they actually are.

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4 thoughts on “How to speak open-minded

  1. leah, again, you have a great talent at conveying a complex idea in a simple and easily understandable way. hemingway said of faulkner: i know the ten dollar words too, but there are older and simpler words that work just as well and those are the words I use…” or something to that effect. have you ever thought of becoming a teacher? i think you would be great at it! Thanks for providing me with great reading while I should be working 🙂

  2. Haha, thanks Annie! I completely agree with Hemingway- and if Nottingham had only understood that, my marks would have been a lot higher! I have thought of becoming a teacher, and may yet someday. Always glad to help others procrastinate 🙂

  3. Open or closed-mindedness is often wrongly determined by which side of an issue a person’s viewpoint falls.

    A person or group of people who have very strong beliefs of right and wrong on particular issues are often considered closed-minded. In contrast, individuals or groups of people whose viewpoints are more tolerant are often described as being open-minded. This is the wrong use of the term open-minded. Being open-minded describes a person who is ready to respect the views and beliefs that differ from their own.

    For example, imagine a scenario where there are two individuals and one believes abortion is wrong, and the other does not (not that hard to imagine). Often the first individual is considered closed-minded, where the other is considered open-minded. In both cases, the person who is open-minded is the one who respects that others can have a different opinion, belief or view than their own. So if the first person firmly believes that abortion is wrong, but respects the opinion and rights of others to hold a different viewpoint, then his or she is in fact open-minded. The second person, who believes abortion is not wrong, but cannot respect that others may hold a different opinion is in fact closed-minded.

    Ironically, sometimes those who are described as open-minded, and accuse others of closed-mindedness are often actually quite closed-minded themselves. To be fair, those who are described as closed-minded are actually closed-minded. In reality, often neither side is willing to see things from the other’s point-of-view.

    A less controversial example: A person may have a very firm belief that there is a right way to eat Reeces. If you respect this person’s right to have this opinion, no matter how stupid you think it is, you are open-minded. If you are willing to find out why this person has (in your opinion) such an odd belief, and see and maybe appreciate their point-of-view, then you are open-minded. Simply stating that there is no right way to eat Reeces does not make you open-minded. You could be just as closed-minded in your opinion.

    The key to being open-minded is your ability to separate your opinion of the person from your opinion of their viewpoint. If you can respect a person who holds a different viewpoint than you, you are open-minded.

    • As one of those people who has the more “tolerant view”… I think I speak on behalf of most of my more tolerant friends when I say that on most issues, I’m willing to say, “You are welcome to your opinion on whether something is right or wrong. But I strongly object to your insistence that your belief should be used to put constraints on people.”

      To use a different not-controversial example: I hate broccoli. I think it’s disgusting and gross and nobody should have to eat it. But if someone wants to eat broccoli, I don’t think they should be prevented from it just because I think their broccoli-eating ways are nasty. If my kids like broccoli, I won’t say, “Not in my house!” I’ll serve it to them until they’re old enough to cook it themselves, and won’t tell them that it’s wrong to like broccoli, even if I can’t stand the stuff. I won’t say, “Ew, that’s gross!” at a restaurant if the people at the next table are eating broccoli. I won’t start petitions for my local restaurants to stop making dishes that contain broccoli. I’ll just eat something else.

      I love salami and cream-cheese pizza. I know a lot of people who think this is gross. I tell them why I love it, and if they continue with an emphatic “Ew,” I say, “Well, ok, I think it’s delicious, but I get how you think it’s gross.” I would be seriously pissed if access to salami and cream cheese pizza was made illegal, because seriously, how is my taste in pizza (or any other choices I make in my life) affecting some naysayer’s life?

      Nobody’s forcing anybody to eat salami and cream cheese pizza. I’m just asking to be allowed to eat it myself.

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