I want to talk about language: meanings and misunderstandings. I want to talk about responsibility and what the road to hell is paved with.
I want to talk about the “friend zone.”
I’m ashamed to admit that I used this phrase in earnest in my youth. I’m somewhat redeemed in that I completely misunderstood what it signified.
There have been several times in my life that I found myself sexually and/or romantically attracted to someone who didn’t reciprocate it. We’ve all been there.
It’s disappointing. It sucks. Sometimes it hurts.
But I always understood that no one owes me attraction, desire, intimacy. No one owes me sex or romance.
I understood that no one chooses who they’re attracted to—that’s not something we consciously control. Sometimes, maybe even most of the time, your desire won’t be returned in kind. That’s just how it goes. It’s not anyone’s fault.
I was still friends with most of these women for whom I pined but who weren’t interested in me that way. Those friendships were important to me, and they weren’t just better than nothing. These were good people and I was lucky to spend time with them.
Yes, it made me sad that we never got to date but that’s life sometimes.
I thought that’s all “friend zone” meant.
I didn’t know that “friend zone” meant something different and darker to other guys. That the friend zone could be a place of bitterness and blame, anger and seething resentment.
I didn’t realize how many men felt that women owed them reciprocation, how many men blame women for not returning their affections.
I didn’t know that “friend zone” signified shocking selfishness and solipsism, that the concept represents dangerous misogyny.
As soon as I learned what it meant, I stopped using it.
The reason I’m only somewhat redeemed by the fact that I never meant it that way is because many of the men who heard me use the phrase during those years didn’t know that I never meant it that way. Just as I had naively assumed these other guys meant it as innocently as I did, so they must have assumed I meant it as bitterly as they did.
My use of that phrase affirmed their selfish, misogynistic beliefs.
It doesn’t matter what I meant when that’s the practical outcome.
We’re all responsible for the consequences of our actions—even, and perhaps especially, for the consequences we didn’t intend. We all have a responsibility to learn from the consequences of our actions, and unintended outcomes have the most to teach us.
Speech is an action. If my words cause harm, if they inflict pain on others, then it’s my responsibility to stop using those words. Regardless of whether I intend them to be hurtful, if my words hurt someone I have a responsibility to try and do better.
I need to find different words to say what I mean—words that are, hopefully, less hurtful.
Thankfully, the English language is rich with vocabulary. There are always multiple ways to say the same thing. Finding different words isn’t that difficult and it certainly doesn’t hurt me to do so.
I have an obligation to do so.
I recall some years ago when I started to become aware of gender issues, transgender and gender non-conforming folk. There’s a lot of specific vocabulary defining and surrounding these issues and culture, and most of it was new to me. One term I heard people using in these discussions was “normative.” So I started using it, too.
Then someone I knew and trusted got angry at me for using it: it’s a loaded term, implying what’s normal and by extension, categorizing everything else as abnormal. Labeling things “abnormal” has a long history of oppression, discrimination, and violence. My use of the term “normative” hurt her.
My knee jerk reaction was to get angry back: she knew me better than to think I’d hurt her on purpose and this was all new to me and other people were using it so how was I supposed to know?
My reaction was my own embarrassment: I tried to get it right and screwed up. No one likes being wrong, especially if your intentions were good. I also understood just how sensitive the subject was for her and how deeply she’s been wounded in the past. Her defensiveness was necessary for her survival in a world that largely sees her existence as sin and abomination.
My embarrassment is petty compared to her pain. I hated that I had hurt her.
I didn’t voice my knee jerk reaction to my friend. I apologized for hurting her and asked her what terms I should use. She told me what the preferred nomenclature was and guided me to seek advice from others. I thanked her for trusting me enough to correct me and changed my words accordingly.
Ultimately, I saw that she corrected me precisely because she knew I didn’t mean to hurt anyone and wanted to make sure I wouldn’t do so again.
If I had responded to my friend with anger and embarrassment, our exchange would have been bitter and confrontational, recrimination and argument.
Instead, I got to have my eyes opened. I got to participate in a dialog that lessened hurt and increased mutual understanding.
I’m happy to change my words if it helps make someone else’s life a little better. I don’t ever want my words to bolster attitudes or world views that I believe are destructive and abhorrent.
Words hurt. Language plays an essential role in defining culture, and culture has incredible power to destroy lives.
I’m responsible for my words. I choose which words I use, when I use them, the tone and circumstances of my acts of speech.
It’s on me to get it right, to help and not harm. It’s on me to learn my lesson when I get it wrong.
It’s on me to do better.