Word Choice Matters: Let’s talk more about pronouns

It’s certainly been an interesting couple of weeks in the world of South Kingstown schools. From Fox News to the AFL-CIO, we were reminded that education these days is unfortunately much more complicated than just teaching and learning. In our town, education seems to be the epicenter of political polarization. This isn’t overly surprising as education carries the largest price tag for local governments. As the cost of living, especially in a beautiful seaside town, increases dramatically, people naturally seek avenues to relieve the financial burden. Fiscal battles are natural and this political back and forth is at the heart of how our republic has developed since the years of its founding. But for whatever reason, here in SK it just keeps cutting deeper…and deeper.

Fast forward to the end of last Tuesday’s School Committee meeting. For the second consecutive time the Curtis Corner cafeteria was packed. After returning from executive session, School Committee members voted to remove items from the agenda that related to the removal and replacement of the Superintendent and shifted their leadership around in the spirit of a fresh start. Sandwiched between these actions were numerous impassioned and emotional accounts from the community. The theme of the night was the need for unity. The wounds that divide us are deep, but now is the time to refocus our efforts and energy. As we climb out of a pandemic that could only have added to our frustrations, our disconnectedness, and our mistrust of the world around us, we need to reengage with our neighbors. We need to remember what it means to be a community.

I am the Dean of Students at Peace Dale Elementary School. Much of my work with children revolves around building relationships, restorative practices, and behavioral interventions. It’s through that lens that I challenge all of us, the members of the South Kingstown community, to model what we expect of the School Committee.

Here’s the challenge:

FROM THIS POINT ON, WHEN COMMENTING ON OR ABOUT EDUCATION, OUR SCHOOLS, OR THE SCHOOL COMMITTEE, FORCE OURSELVES TO USE FIRST PERSON PLURAL PRONOUNS.

Psychological research about association shows us that time and time again, we innately refer to things we care about as “ours” and things we want to distance ourselves from as “theirs”. Simple examples exist in the world of sports. Despite the fact that none of us are on the New England Patriots, many people in these parts had no problem proclaiming that “we won the Super Bowl”. When Tom Brady leaves and the Patriots don’t make the playoffs the same people say, “they stink”. We naturally, and usually unintentionally, use language that distances ourselves from things we don’t want to be associated with (“they”, “them”, “you”). If your goal is to convince the School Committee (or any human for that matter) of your point because you think your ideas have value, speaking to them as an opponent is both ineffective and divisive. We can do better. If your goal is to move this town in what you think is the right direction, accept the challenge. If you’d instead prefer to just signal to those who are like-minded, we’ll continue to polarize and this condition of disunity will become more and more difficult to reverse.

On the flip side, we use first person plural (“we”, “us”) when we want to associate ourselves with something. We’re all here because we associate ourselves with education and the well-being of the children of this town. Shouldn’t that commonality be enough to pull us in the same direction? “We need to do better” vs. “You need to do better”. It might seem simple. It is. It might seem trivial. It is not. Communicating in associative language naturally fosters a spirit of cooperation, a spirit that is critical to healing our town, even if you are expressing disagreement. Communicating in disassociative language naturally fosters competitive impulses which quickly open the door for ego and politics to steal the lead role. Sound familiar? Players on both “sides” are guilty of this.

At Peace Dale, we teach our young people to analyze the impact their actions have on others and time and time again we find the root lies in ineffective communication. As a town, we are ineffective communicators. I don’t know that accepting this challenge and forcing ourselves to adopt unifying pronouns will solve all of our problems. But I do believe it’d be a meaningful first step that we can take together. Gandhi famously reminded us to “be the change you want to see in the world”. We can yell at the School Committee and argue with those on “the other side” until we’re blue in the face, or we can signal our support for solutions because we all care about the future of our town. Let’s start by being more intentional when it comes to the smallest, but often most powerful, words we use.