30 Days of Social Justice: Precision of Language

Whether you are hearing or deaf, American or international, verbal or nonverbal, language makes up humanity’s primary method of communication. Precision of language is an important part of that communication. As children, we learn the five W’s: who, what, when, where, and why. These are to help us simplify and direct our communications with other people. Answer these five W’s and every conversation will be clear and understandable. Yet, in adulthood, the complexities of communication–non-verbal cues, method of communication, vocabulary, personal bias, visual perception, et cetera–cause us to overlook the value of specific language in our interpersonal interactions. The value of language lies in its ability to communicate with accuracy any idea, thought, feeling, or expression that you want to share with another human. As librarians, we ought to be very concerned with how much value is in our communication with customers.

Librarianship is a customer service based industry. We have a responsibility to our customers to provide them with an interaction that has value, regardless of what information or service a customer has requested. That value can be delivered any number of ways, be it through correct information, a pleasant conversation, or an introduction to new, relevant services. But all of those added values can only be achieved with precision of language.

Our responsibility to bring value to customer service interactions is incredibly important as it relates to social justice. Libraries are free of censorship and open to anyone who may come in the door. Regardless of your own background, we as professionals need to be prepared for interactions with people whose backgrounds and realities may be different than our own. We must be prepared to empathize with the lived experiences of our customers by affording them the basic dignities of personhood. To be blunt, we have to do better at accepting differences and mastering the vocabulary to interact with customers of other races/ethnicities and members of the LGBTIQ+ and disabled communities.

Take the trans community as an example. It is unacceptable to misgender any customer. If you have a relationship with a customer who you know is trans, you must make an effort to use that person’s correct pronouns, regardless of your personal beliefs. If Starbucks can do it, so can we. If you are not sure of a customer’s gender, use gender non-specific language or gender neutral pronouns. By choosing a career in which you are a provider of customer service, you have chosen to put the customer’s needs before your own. That includes putting the customer’s identity before your own beliefs.

As the service provider, you are responsible for making sure you have the language and skills to communicate with a member of any community. If the customer is a member of the trans community, you are responsible for being aware of gendering your speech patterns. You are responsible for being aware of how your words are received by the person you are interacting with. Libraries are safe spaces, and if a customer visiting your institution is triggered by your language–by the lack of precision with which you wield words towards another human–you have decreased, not added to, the value of that customer’s experience at your library.

Some things we as staff cannot do anything about. If your library building does not have single stall, gender neutral or unisex restrooms, there is probably not any way for you to change that aspect of a customer’s experience at your institution. But there are things you as a staff member do have the ability to change about that customer’s experience, and there are so many ways to educate yourself about these increasingly visible topics. If you work for a large system, request sensitivity trainings, or work with a local LGBTIQ+ resource to develop that training. If you work for a smaller organization, put your librarianship skills to good use and research appropriate and relevant information. The resources are out there for us to take advantage of, and there is little excuse for continued ignorance.

The customer experience is the foundation of our profession. And in a modern society, we cannot choose to remain uneducated on issues which are vital to that foundation. Customers with disabilities, customers in the LGBTIQ+ community, customers of color, international customers, or even customers recently relocated to your area–you may or may not share any lived experiences with these customers, but you have one great starting point for your interaction: you are in the same place, at the same time, with complementary goals. How you build on that starting point–what language you choose to employ to make that customer feel welcomed and supported–is what that customer will remember when they leave. The words you use and the context in which you use them are important. Words are valuable. So choose the right words.

Tajuana Fulton is an Adult Services Library Assistant at the Memphis Public Library and Information Center. Before moving into librarianship, she spent three years in higher education administration, working with teens as a Residence Director for Bard College at Simon’s Rock.

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3 Comments

  1. This post gives me so much to think about re: how I greet people and speak to them. It’s definitely something we need to be conscious of as librarians and library staff, as well as in our everyday lives.

  2. That APA link is very interesting and helpful. Thank you for sharing it! I’ve been working on making my language less gendered. So far I’ve managed to almost entirely stop saying “sir” or “ma’am” to people I don’t know (though I’m still working on it). Also my grammar freak younger self beat it into my head that you cannot use “they” as a singular, so now I’m having to beat that back out again! Gender-neutral pronouns are not only more inclusive, they are also more convenient because they don’t require you to know someone’s gender. It’s a win all around.

  3. I liked your example about trans patrons. Living in NC, we had a lot of discussions about HB2. It is very important to always put the customer first!

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