Language and suicide

A few days ago, I was asked to complete a survey on the language ‘around suicide’. As I qualify as a person who ‘has been affected by suicide’, I completed the survey. Here I want to offer a few comments on it. I think parts of this post might be seen as controversial by some readers.

The questionnaire. It’s a project between universities of Nottingham and Bristol and the Samaritans. This is how it’s introduced:

Without realising, the way we talk about things can impact on others – both positively and negatively. Suicide is a sensitive topic, so it’s important to be aware of how the language we use can affect others.

This introduction is somewhat surprising. The survey has nothing to do with ‘how language can affect others’. Rather, it is about what words respondents find acceptable or not (though I shall come to it). I suspect that the introduction is underpinned by the assumption that if the word is ‘acceptable’, it will not ‘affect’ others negatively. It’s worth stressing, however, that such an assumption is implausible.

The introduction also says that the survey is about “what language you think should be used to describe suicide.”. That’s actually also a bit of a misrepresentation, as the survey concerns a few words and phrases. Language, on the other hand, is waaaaaay more than a few words and phrases and it’s really important to understand that. The unchanging focus of the field on a few suspect words is as counteruseful as pointless.

Now, I don’t particularly want to analyse the instrument itself, however, I do want to make two points. The instrument introduces a scale on which words are assessed: unacceptable – neutral – acceptable. So, my first point is that I don’t think acceptability can be opted out of. In other words, something is acceptable (more or less) or not acceptable (more or less), but I think acceptability doesn’t have a zero point which situates something outside acceptability. It seems acceptability in the instrument means something else – something like ‘I like it’ or ‘it’s positive’, through neither positive or negative, to negativity. In my view, it’s a problem, as it is unclear what exactly is assessed.

My second point is, again, about the use of neutrality. I really wish psychologists stopped talking about neutral language. There is no such thing. Seriously.

Now, I want to raise two issues with the survey and others like it.

1. Context. The first issue is that of context. Let us assume that it does make sense to establish what words respondents of the survey find acceptable (though, as I said above, I doubt the survey measures acceptability). What exactly does it tell us? Does it really tell us that the acceptable words are acceptable across the board, while unacceptable words are always unacceptable? This is extremely unlikely! Rather, it is more than likely that, say, professional (clinical, institutional) contexts will have different standards of acceptability than, for example, chatting.

Moreover, it is also more than likely that what medics say will be judged differently from what patients say. What’s acceptable for a person who has just tried to kill themselves, is unlikely to be acceptable for a doctor who will admit them to hospital.

And so, without a clear and explicit consideration of the context in which such ‘language’ will be used, the survey hangs in a social vacuum and its results are unlikely to provide any meaningful insight into how ‘we’ should speak of suicide. To reinforce, there are none and there can never be any uniform standards of social acceptability. This is really neither controversial, nor is it particularly complex or subtle linguistics.

2. Othering. But the most important issue I want to raise is different. Let us imagine that, indeed, the questionnaire will yield clear results and the authors will be able to say that, for example, most people (shall we say, 75 per cent) to find the expression ‘commit suicide’ very unacceptable. So, what will it mean?

Will ‘we’ start telling people who attempted to commit suicide to stop saying that? Or perhaps ‘we’ will tell people who have just lost someone not to use the phrase? I suspect ‘we’ will not. So, what’s exactly the point? Whom are ‘we’ going to educate in the ‘acceptable’ language?

But instead of hypothesising, let’s take my example. I choose to use the c-word, I choose to refer to suicide with the verb ‘commit’. I have  written about it a number of times, most recently arguing against euphemising suicide. I think I can safely say that I am a fairly intelligent and reflective person and I make a conscious choice to use the expression.

And yet, no one is interested. Because of the kind of people I follow on Twitter, I am bombarded with demands to drop the expression ‘commit suicide’, I’ve been told more times than I care to remember that I pathologise suicide, that I make it a sin, that I shouldn’t speak like that and so on and the like. I am yet to have my arguments responded to, they are, just as I am, rejected out of hand. The discussions range from polite ‘yes, yes, yes, but’ through ‘but you’re simply wrong’, to straightforward false claims. And not it’s not only about that ‘people don’t want to use the word ‘commit’. The wildest claim I heard was that the Samaritans’ research had found that using the phrase ‘commit suicide’ stops people from seeking help. I contacted the Samaritans, they denied the existence of such research. Needless to say, the response came too late, the ‘world’ heard how I contributed to human misery.

Of course, I am way too old and experienced in such debates (being an academic does help here) to be fussed. I’ve argued with psychiatrists and psychologists so long that I’ve been called worse. But I would imagine that there are people for whom being told that how they speak is simply wrong must be uncomfortable and difficult.

And here is the crucial point. The claims of acceptability or correctness of ‘language’ serve not much more than othering those who speak differently (this is an argument which based on the brilliant blogpost by Debbie Cameron on shibboleths).

I am in a group of people who are simply wrong, problematic, and ill-informed. We are others, those who do not belong to the positive of group of nice people who use the ‘right language’. We’re outside, as we’re not allowed to have our multiple and diverse reasons for our linguistic choices. These choices are dismissed en masse without blinking of an eye. Linguistics and its not inconsiderable knowledge of how language works? Oh, who cares?! Language matters!

3. Rights. As I said before, I qualified to complete the survey. I ‘have been affected by suicide’. And so, I’m going seriously controversial here, do I have a right to tell people how to speak about suicide? I’m sure ethicists would answer this question better, but whichever way I look at it, I would answer such a question with a no. This is because the issue is different altogether.

So, I don’t really care what words you use, as long as I can see your respect. In my view, the words in the survey do not matter one single bit, because you can use all those super-acceptable words in a most dismissive and disrespectful way. You really can. The other way around too! And, apparently, it’s something that suicidology, psychology, or psychiatry is incapable of understanding. It’s really not that language matters, what really matters is the context in which the phrase is used here and now! As suicidology et consortes wants to come up with a list of good and bad words, it somehow cannot comprehend that no such list is possible.

The respect I am speaking of can be rendered in a variety of ways, from your demeanour, tone of voice, how loudly you speak, how you address me, how you talk about the person who committed suicide. And I don’t give two hoots whether you use that word or another.

I want to stress that this is my personal perspective and I am sure that many people will disagree with me. But I am also fairly certain that I am not alone. I also don’t think I am particularly stupid or weird in my thinking. So, do I deserve a perspective when talking about suicide is considered?

4. Easy way out. The final point I want to make (as ever) is that focusing on a few words offers an easy way out. You can teach people to use that word not that word and it’s job well done. Now, we’re cool and use ‘acceptable language’. Then ‘we’ shall tell them that ‘it’s OK to talk’ and Bob’s your uncle.

And, ad nauseam, I repeat. Language is not only words, speaking involves much more than using one word instead of others. In the post on linguistics of empathy, I told a story about a famous professor of psychiatry in Poland. He had a reputation for a particular way of speaking to his patients. And so, patients reporting delusions would apparently have heard something like:

What kind of fucking nonsense is that?

(For those of you who speak Polish, it was “A co mi tu pan będzie pierdolić?”). Except that, so the stories invariably went, he said it in a way that not only were his patients not offended, but they loved him. He was a very popular shrink. But whenever I tell this story at conferences or other meetings, people are shocked and protest. You can’t speak like that to patients. Except he did and he had results. Who is to say that the patients were wrong?!

Needless to say, I would not recommend his approach into a communication textbook, however, I would recommend understanding that changing words is pointless.

And finally, ‘we’ persuaded people that ‘language matters’ and that it is a priority. Except no one consulted the linguists and the ‘language matters’ mantra is hardly reflective of how language and communication work. Moreover, as ‘we’ focus on language that apparently matters very much, we do not focus on things that matter more. For I keep thinking that it’s much better to focus on whether people who are at the most dramatic juncture in their lives, get help they urgently need. I somehow don’t think that a word or two is important when someone about to commit suicide is told to go home and make an appointment in a week’s time.

Yes, language matters, but for goodness sake, let’s keep things in perspective.

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