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Words Matter

The language we use can be just as important as the actions we take, in animal welfare work, and in life.

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Last week, I read Dr. Kate Hurley’s Million Cat Challenge blog, “Turning on a Dime, the Small Price of Change,” and found myself intrigued and inspired. Her premise is simple: sometimes change happens “not with a roar, but with a million quiet conversations.” Sometimes making life better for animals doesn’t require a herculean effort, it just requires tiny changes in our perspective and approach.

Dr. Hurley arrived at this simple yet powerful conclusion because of a seemingly unremarkable change in wording at her local grocery store, her cashier replacing the traditional “Paper or plastic?” question with “Did you bring a bag, or would you like to buy one?”

The change is subtle, but as Dr. Hurley points out, it opens the door for a new perspective, and new opportunities. If replacing “Paper or plastic?” can cause people to rethink their relationship to trash and recycling, couldn’t other seemingly innocuous changes alter people’s relationship to their pets, and to our profession? How many words and phrases do we use in our work each and every day without really understanding how they are received? How many of those seemingly innocent phrases could be tweaked to generate a different approach, a different feeling, a different outcome?

Take the sentence “We need to educate people about responsible pet ownership,” for example, which comes up often when we’re mounting education efforts and legislative proposals. I’ve uttered these exact words many times over the course of my career, and I bet you have too. The meaning behind it, to us, is nothing but positive: We want to help people make better choices, so their pets get the care they need to thrive. What could be wrong with that? Well, if we take the time to parse that phrase and view it not from our perspective, but from the perspective of those we are talking about, it doesn’t seem quite so harmless any longer.

We’re going to “educate” people. Who needs to be educated? People who are ignorant, who don’t know any better, who need us, as superior individuals, to correct their deficiencies and show them the proper path. Wow, talk about judgment! I don’t care what side of the political aisle you’re on, if someone from the other party sits you down and tells you they are going to “educate” you about ANYTHING, I doubt you’ll be very receptive, and I’m quite sure you won’t respond with, “Gee, thank you so much for taking the time to ‘educate’ me!”

And what do we need to “educate” these people about? “Responsible pet care.” Again, we mean this in its most positive sense. But look up the definition of “responsible” and you’ll find phrases like “morally accountable for one’s behavior” and “capable of being trusted.” So if you’re not a pet owner already engaging in “responsible” behavior, you’re irresponsible, and by extension, immoral and untrustworthy. Yikes! Are there people out there who are immoral and untrustworthy? Of course. But are the vast majority of pet owners honestly doing the best they can, given what they know and the resources they have, to be moral and trustworthy for their pets? Absolutely.

Can we convey our intent without unintentionally insulting much of the general public along the way? Absolutely, by instead saying things like “We want to support/empower/share information with pet owners about better pet-keeping/making the best decisions for their pets”—almost any variation would be an improvement.

How about when a rescue group says “We rescued Fluffy from a high-kill shelter.” It’s easy to spot the big clunker here, right? Hopefully we’re past the days when the words “kill shelter” were used as a bludgeon, and we all understand that ending the euthanasia of every healthy, adoptable pet is a goal shared by all and a burden we carry together. So why still use those labels? But maybe you missed the more subtle, but equally potentially damaging, word in that sentence—“rescued.” The statement is clear; Fluffy was rescued from the shelter. Really? Didn’t the shelter take in Fluffy in the first place, and serve as her first source of sanctuary? Didn’t that shelter then take the necessary steps to facilitate the transfer of Fluffy to another group with better prospects for adoption, thereby maximizing the chance she’ll find a new loving home? As a person who spent considerable time working to build relationships with myriad groups in order to save as many lives as possible, I can tell you that hearing someone say they “rescued” an animal from my shelter and my dedicated team definitely stung. Perhaps a more artful, yes, even more humane, way of conveying the same information would be to say “We rescued Fluffy with the shelter.” Again, a small, but significant difference.

This idea of small changes in wording to achieve more positive outcomes and better relationships can apply in virtually every context. For example, I’ve seen groups conduct training for adoption counselors, instructing their new recruits to spot the red flags in the applications they receive. What if instead they trained those same counselors to look for the green flags? What if instead of seeing reasons to say “no” right off the bat, they started out looking for the reasons to say yes? A simple change, but a powerful—and potentially lifesaving—one.

Sure, we can get too caught up in semantics. But in our field, the language we use can truly be just as important as the actions we take, in part because the words we choose often end up dictating our actions. What animals in our community truly need “sheltering”? Does that word include the feral cat whose body condition clearly evidences he has a reliable source of food and shelter? Is it our mission to “rehome” every pet who comes to our door, or should we instead try to “keep pets in their loving homes” as often as possible? These are critical questions that will be raised only if we’re continuously examining the words we use.

It’s very simple—words matter. So let’s pick the right ones, the ones that will maximize our work and help us assist as many animals as possible. When we’re having those “quiet conversations” that Dr. Hurley recommends, let’s be sure to choose our words wisely.

Do you agree with Inga that words matter? Let us know in the comment section below!

 

About the Author

Inga Fricke is Director, Pet Retention Programs, at The Humane Society of the United States (HSUS).  She serves on the Board of Shelter Animals Count, a non-profit organization formed to create and share a national database of sheltered animal statistics, and as Chair of the Society of Animal Welfare Administrators’ CAWA Exam Preparatory Resources Committee. Prior to joining The HSUS, Inga served as Administrator of the Wyandot County Humane Society/H.O.P.E. Clinic, helping to found the Wyandot County Equine Rescue, and as Shelter Manager for Loudoun County Animal Care and Control.