The impact of language in tech
- Publish Date
- River Lynn Bailey
I had a bit of an “aha!” moment recently as I was writing a message about a sensitive subject in a Slack channel. I wanted to use a few specific words to talk about how my post might be “misunderstood” or “misinterpreted.” A moment before I sent the message, though, I realized I was about to step into dangerous territory causing me me to stop writing and ask myself:
How would my statement about someone else misinterpreting what I wrote, be interpreted?
Intent vs. impact
Suppose I chose to say something blatantly racist in that message. Then, when called out for this, I chose to say those who were upset were “just misunderstanding” or “misinterpreting” my words. I could say they needed to look past the specific language, to the intent of the message.
But what good is my intent if the words I’m using are causing real harm to people? Does my hand-waving and excuse-making mean something is not racist when those who are in the best position to make that judgement are saying it is? Not even remotely. And certainly not because the word or phrase is commonly used.
Be intentional with language
When looking at the world of tech and the language chosen to express an idea, there is a need for understanding more than just the current use of a specific word or phrase. Care must be taken to avoid hurting those who may be suffering under the long-lasting effects of racism and other forms of oppression. There is also a need to prevent an implicit or even explicit spread of the underlying oppression.
Caroline Karanja recently said this, in an interview with NPR’s All Things Considered.
“if you are going to start recruiting from people who are from different backgrounds, who are multilingual, whose socialization has happened outside of the U.S. context, you actually have to feed them American societal views around some racial aspects in order for them to understand what some of these terms mean within a coding context.”
What happens when a person from outside the United States sees a word like “master” in a git repository, and asks about it? Assume they know there is a connection to the 400+ years of horror with chattel slavery in the U.S., and then ask yourself how you might respond in a way that does not blame them for “misunderstanding.”
Or, perhaps they saw the words “blacklist” and “whitelist”, or heard a colleague refer to an app as a “special snowflake”, or saw any of a countless number of other words and phrases that are tied to the history of slavery, White supremacy, and other forms of oppression.
What then? Do you explain to them the oppressive nature of the words or phrases, and then tell them that it’s “not a big deal” because it “doesn’t mean that anymore”? Does that explanation work when this person is of the marginalized or oppressed group targeted by this phrase? Or when they have friends and family who are hurt by it? Is it reasonable or ethical to shift the burden of this language and its impact onto the person asking questions by saying they “misunderstand” the context and meaning?
Intent isn’t enough
At the end of the day, the words I choose are my responsibility. And while I can’t control another person’s reaction or response, I can work to minimize the harm I cause—the potential for negative impact.
With the message I was writing in Slack, I never intended to blame the reader for my mistakes or the damage I may have done. But my intent on its own isn’t enough to mitigate the problems. As Kim Crayton said in her “Profit without Oppression” talk,
“Intent without strategy is chaos”
A clear strategy implies a known goal or goals. These act as a guide for what I am communicating. They give me constraints in which I need to work. Writing when I don’t have any strategic direction in mind leaves the intent up to my current emotional state, recent frustrations, or maybe a bad conversation that I keep replaying in my mind. When I look toward my goals, though, I can be reminded of where I want to be and the strategies I am using to get there.
Toward a more inclusive workplace
One of my current career goals is to help create a more inclusive working environment. I’m incredibly fortunate to work for a company that shares this goal and is putting in the work to make it a reality. There are many ways in which I can help, including my efforts to minimize damage caused by what I say, write, and do.
With that in mind, I chose words that expressed my intent without working against my own goals, or those of Test Double. I also chose words that accepted my responsibility and the potential they had for negative impact.
When you write, speak, or take action, are you working toward a goal with a strategy in mind? Or do you let your current mood and circumstances take control, consequences be damned?