Why words like 'rape' and 'bullying' can get in the way of changing behaviors.
Non-profits are no strangers to jargon, and plenty of tools help organizations rid their communications of the worst insider lingo.
The Communications Network's Jargon Finder lists a number of words that cloud our messages and prevent us from connecting with the people we are trying to reach. While "social safety net," "stakeholders," and "moving the needle" certainly qualify as words that should be banned from non-profit messages, I'd argue the list is much more expansive.
As a non-profit consultant, I often come across words that aren't exactly insider language but have the same effect of hiding the true meaning behind them. To me, any word that is not evocative or that does not create a clear image of the people or behavior in question belongs on a list of jargon to avoid-- especially when those words have extreme life consequences.
A new study suggests "rape" is one of those words. According to NY Mag's Science of Us, "Almost a third of the men (31.7 percent) said that in a consequence-free situation, they'd force a woman to have sexual intercourse, while 13.6 percent said they would rape a woman. Setting aside the fact that it's terrifying that a full third of a random group of college men will admit to this, the 20-point divide is still weird, even if it does reflect what's been observed in previous research: At the end of the day, after all, the two groups are saying the exact same thing." Except they aren't.
Words matter. And while "forcing a woman to have sexual intercourse" clearly identifies the behavior in question, "rape" is an emotionally powerful word with strong negative connotations that hides the actual behavior. In work to create more affirming and safe school environments, I've found the same thing: people who believe "bullying" is wrong have no problem teasing or pushing someone around to show off an imbalance of power.
If organizations and advocates want to create behavior change and prevent horrific acts, we have to use language that is concrete and unmistakable. It may not fit neatly on a sign, but specifically naming the behavior creates a clear picture of what is acceptable and what is not.