Writing with Respect

Juanita Watt, Los Alamos, New Mexico, USA

Adapted from LADders 2015-3 No. 22. Newsletter for members of the Leader Accreditation Department

Respect. This word is used frequently in La Leche League (LLL). As Leaders we respect the mothers we help, as well as Leader Applicants and co-Leaders, as individuals and as adults responsible for making their own decisions. The language we choose—both written and spoken—is one way to show our respect. Here are some examples:

Possessive verbs, phrases, and pronouns

Language that implies other mothers are our possessions can come across as condescending. For example:  “Janet has a Leader Applicant,” “We have five members,” “My/our Leader Applicant,” “Our/your mothers.”  On the other hand, possessives used with entities, such as Groups or Areas, only seem to indicate affiliation.  

Here are some ideas for avoiding using possessive language with mothers by having the possessive refer to an entity instead of a person:

  • Janet’s Group has a Leader Applicant.
  • There are five members in our Group.
  • Our Group’s Leader Applicant is also the Group librarian.
  • The mothers in our Group are excited about the conference.
Words and phrases usually associated with children, animals, and objects

When used to refer to adults, certain terms may come across as condescending or manipulative. For example, “grow,” “nurture,” “groom,” “train,” “generate,” “locate,” and “prepare” are commonly used with children, animals, or objects. Children and plants “grow” or need “nurturing.” We “groom” or “train” our pets, “generate” electricity, “locate” our car keys, and “prepare” dinner. When referring to mothers or Leader Applicants, how about using these words?

  • help
  • encourage
  • assist
  • work with
  • inspire
  • interest
  • invite
  • attract
  • mentor

Another example: “Last week I met with Stephanie, a Leader Applicant in our Group, to discuss the Checklist and other pertinent items to help her prepare for leadership.” This wording indicates Stephanie is the one doing the preparing.

Avoiding the word “process” with “application” and “accreditation” reflects the Leader Accreditation Department’s goal to design each application to meet the needs of the individual Applicant. Often just “application” or “accreditation” is enough, or try “accreditation journey,” “application period,” “application time,” or “accreditation procedures.”

“Which” and “that” are generally used with animals and objects and can sound condescending when used with people: “mothers that attend LLL meetings.”  Using “who” and “whom” with people shows our respect: “Mothers who attend LLL meetings share encouragement and support.”

Sensitivity to a word’s context helps when using analogies and metaphors. Although these can add excitement and imagery to our writing, we need to be aware of whether we are personifying objects or “objectifying” people.

For example, “what she learns at LLL meetings can help a mother grow” sounds condescending because it compares the mother to a growing plant (or child). However, “what she learns at LLL meetings can help a mother’s confidence grow” avoids this because “grow” is used to describe the mother’s confidence, not the mother herself.

Language that sounds controlling

Words like “advise,” “counsel,” “teach,” “educate,” “guide,” “warn,” “should,” and “must” can come across as controlling because they imply that a Leader is responsible for a mother or her decisions. Here are some alternatives that reflect a peer relationship between adults:

  • suggest
  • encourage
  • help
  • support
  • inform
  • offer
  • can
  • might

For example, “Leaders can encourage mothers to consult their baby’s doctor if they have concerns about . . .” Using “encourage” (instead of “advise” or “counsel”) keeps the responsibility and decision to consult the doctor with the mother.

Some sentence structures can sound controlling or imply that a suggestion will work for everyone. For example, “Nurse every two hours” and “Nursing more often will build your supply” can come across as advice or a “guarantee” of results. “Many mothers have found that nursing every two hours . . .” and “Nursing more often might help to build up your supply” are more open-ended and leave the decision up to the mother.

When we do need to state an expectation or requirement directly, using simple present tense or adding a reason and “please” to a request for action sounds more respectful and polite, and less like an “order.” For example, “Leaders offer information and options, not advice” or “To help avoid delays, please sign and send in the Statement of Commitment promptly.”

The language used in spoken conversations and in our letters, emails, and other written material is a powerful way of communicating respect. I hope these ideas inspire you to continue to express your thoughts vividly and creatively and in ways that respect each individual.

Juanita Watt is a Leader in Los Alamos, New Mexico, USA, and is a member of the Leader Today Editorial Review Board. She and her husband Bob have two daughters, two sons-in-law, and an 18-month-old granddaughter, Audrey. Juanita originally wrote this article for US Western Division Connections in 1992, and adapted it for LAD Lifeline, LADders, and this issue of Leader Today. It was also adapted and translated into Japanese for LLL Japan’s Area Leaders’ Letter.