“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.