Wanton Words: Curbing Verbal Crudeness and Cruelty at Camp.
I love language. The beauty of a poem, the lyricism of a novel, thepassion of a political speech, the sentiment of a heartfelt toast, thehumor of standup comedy, and the simplicity of a handwritten letter aretestaments to the expressive power of words. And although language isnot uniquely human, the capacity to create an infinite number ofutterances that follow a finite set of rules probably is. Every humanlanguage on the planet has a grammar that allows us to combine words inunique ways. Your responsibilities as a youth development professionalinclude coaching campers to curtail crassness and use their creativeverbal skills in ways that nurture a healthy culture. Word Power Most of what we say and write is benign, if not beautiful. Some ofwhat we say, however, can be hurtful, even devastating. Consider thepain potential in the expressions "I don't care,""You are worthless," and "Never again." Depending onthe question, even the one-syllable words "Yes" (Was shekilled?) and "No" (Do you love me?) could be crushing. Given the potency of words, it makes sense that all cultures haveadopted conventions around which words and expressions are sociallyacceptable and which are not. Even the most literary and liberal amongus--those who routinely eschew publishing censorship--must also assentto common sense and good manners when it comes to foul language. Somenastiness--such as the F bomb--is obvious. Other times, the distinctionbetween rude and refined is as subtle as capitalization (e.g., dick v.Dick) or word order (e.g., pussy cat v. cat pussy) or spelling (e.g.,damn v. dam). Sometimes, only context clarifies meaning, as with thewords ass, bitch, and cracker, which have common zoological, veterinary,and culinary usages in addition to their vulgar, sexist, and racistmeanings. (By the way, if you are offended, intrigued, or tickled at thispoint in the article, that's solid evidence that word choice doesmatter. Indeed, in 1602, William Shakespeare gave Rosencrantz the linein Hamlet, "... many wearing rapiers [blades] are afraid ofgoose-quills [feather pens] and dare scarce come thither." Some 237years later, another English playwright, Sir Edward Bulwer-Lyttonfamously wrote the same basic line for his play Richelieu: Or theConspiracy--"The pen is mightier than the sword." Whateveryour emotional reaction to the verbal color in this article so far, Iurge you to focus on the following concepts and recommendations. Eachcan guide your work with youth in important ways.) Mailman, Postal Worker, or Letter Distribution Engineer? As a youth leader, your job is not to be the language police,obsessed with political correctness. You can leave that to ultra-radicalfeminists who insist on calling manhole covers personhole covers or tosatirists who re-label old people chronologically gifted or topoliticians themselves who coin euphemisms like quantitative easing todescribe the practice of creating electronic money from thin air. Instead, you can help promote young people's development andcreate a healthy culture at camp by carefully listening and respondingto the offensive words and phrases your campers use. Your attentivepresence, combined with a calm explanation of why some might findcertain verbal expressions offensive and a thoughtful discussion ofalternative word choices, is leadership gold. Boosting campers'expressive language skills will improve their behavior at camp as wellas at home and at school. Wouldn't it be wonderful if parents,teachers, and coaches praised what young people learned to say at camp,rather than cringing in response to the query, Wanna hear what I learnedto say at camp? Or So It's Been Said Almost all of the profanity and offensive phrases that childrenshare at camp were originally spoken or written by an adult. Therefore,a reasonable first step in keeping talk clean at camp is to set a goodexample yourself. If you must swear or use other vulgar language, do itonly on your time off, away from camp. You might even consider takingthe bold and refreshing step of keeping your language clean all summer,regardless of where you are or whom you are with. After setting a sterling example, the next steps in promoting safetalk at camp are: 1. Be present 2. Provide a calm explanation 3. Suggest alternative word choices The overarching principle here is to respond to offensiveverbalizations without overreacting. The importance of this balancebecomes clear when you consider the extremes. If, as a youth leader, youstand to the side, willfully ignoring the way your campers expressthemselves and talk with one another, you may be quietly condoning rude,sexist, or racist speech. You will be teaching these boys and girls thatcamp is a permissive, boorish place. On the other extreme, if you blow agasket and mete out harsh punishment each time your campers cross theline, you'll be teaching them how easy it is to push your buttonsand how attractively potent certain words are. It is patently impossible to be present during your campers'every waking moment. However, you can and should have an attentivepresence during activities, transition times, meal times, showering andchanging times (with appropriate double coverage), and unstructured freetime. It is completely normal for campers to test limits--to try to geta rise out of one another and out of you. So, expect some edgy languagethis summer and listen carefully during the times when you expect foullanguage to emerge, including sports competitions (when tempers arerunning hot), bedtime (or other times when fatigue is high), andcultural blending (when social misunderstandings are common). When you set a good linguistic example and coach your campers tospeak kindly and politely, you are promoting positive youth developmentin an enduring and influential way. Indeed, young people may arrive atyour summer program with unrefined expressive language skills caused byyears of texting. Your leadership will refine their language, theirthinking, and, ultimately, their sensitivity toward others. That'ssuccess, by any description. Notes from the Field How to Explain and Suggest I'm sure I haven't heard it all during my nearly fourdecades in camping. But I have certainly spoken and witnessed my fairshare of sketchy sayings. You'll probably even discover a few newones this summer. Human language is, as I noted previously, infinitelygenerative. Nevertheless, taking a few different examples and showinghow you might provide a calm explanation and suggest alternative wordchoices is genuinely instructive. Never mind if you haven't heardsome of these examples. Each represents a class of wanton words that youshould be ready to respond to in a similar way. Suck. [Sexual Innuendo] Perhaps no foul word is more common amongEnglish-speaking youngsters than suck. It would be hard to spend a fewhours at a day or overnight camp and not hear, "That sucks,""This sucks," "You suck," and even "Isuck." Forget the debate about whether suck counts as an officialswear word or whether it has a sexual connotation. Like its cuss cousinblow, the word suck is at the very least ambiguously crude. So, when youhear, "This sucks" or "That blows" or other commonbad language, an effective response is something like, "Yeah, Iknow you don't like it, but how about saying, 'Thisstinks,' or 'That's terrible'? It's not a hugedeal, but it sounds a little less crude." Ghetto. [Classist] Popularized by rappers in the early 2000s, theexpression "That's so ghetto" is synonymous with"That's so trashy." Ironically, it can be used as praiseor criticism, depending on whether one is glamorizing low-income,high-crime neighborhoods (which many rap stars do) or whether one isderiding the poor quality of an item of clothing, electronics, or sportsequipment (as many young people do). Most likely, campers who say,"That's so ghetto" do not fully understand what they aresaying, nor are they familiar with the origin of the term: theneighborhoods in Venice where Jews were forced to live. So, when youhear, "That's so ghetto," an effective response issomething like, "You might not know this, but a ghetto is aneighborhood where people are forced to live because of their ethnicity,religion, or income level. For that reason, the expression could beoffensive to some people. Try saying, 'That's so trashy'if that's what you mean. Or maybe 'That's cool' ifthat's what you mean." Gypped. [Racist] There may be more hurtfully racist words thangypped or Indian giver, but they all have one thing in common: Theystereotype a race of people (in this case Gypsies [now known as RomaPeople] or American Indians) and use the race name derisively. Somestereotypes and their derisive labels even extend beyond people, as innag, which is literally an old horse, usually in poor condition. Animallovers bristle when people are told to "stop nagging" becauseit is akin to saying, "stop acting like an elderly equine."So, when you hear, "I got gypped" or "He's an Indiangiver," an effective response is something like, "I know youdon't mean to be offensive, but if someone were a Gypsy or anAmerican Indian, I'm sure they wouldn't like being called acheater or a liar. When you use ethnic labels to mean somethingunpleasant, that's racist. Instead of saying, 'I gotgypped,' it's better to say, 'I got treatedunfairly.' And instead of saying, 'He's an Indiangiver,' say, 'He broke his promise.' That way, weunderstand exactly who and what upset you." Wife Beater. [Violent] This insidious label for a men's whitetank top crept into the grade-school lexicon from popular teen culturewithout anyone stopping to think about the reference to domesticviolence. While other clothing references are simply silly (e.g., bananahammock for a men's Speedo racing suit), the term wife beater--asin, "Dude, you look pretty sweet in that wife beater"--istruly repugnant to men and women alike. Oddly, when I've askedyoung people to think about what they are saying, they are surprised tolearn that adults take offense. All the more reason to embrace this as ateaching moment. So, when you hear, "Nice wife beater," aneffective response is something like, "You might not realize it,but you're talking about a kind of tragic violence. It'spretty awful to think about someone beating up the person to whom theyare married. How about just calling it a tank top?" Douche. [Sexist] Male references to female equipment or anatomy aresexist when used as put-downs. "You're a douche" or"He's a douche bag" or "Don't be a pussy"are all ways of making the feminine negative. Boys, of course, areespecially sensitive to feminine references because their masculinity isstill developing and is therefore fragile. (Remember the biggest dig inThe Sandlot? "You throw like a girl!" was a zinger because ofits direct boy-girl comparison.) I've also heard males say thingsto one another like, "Take off your skirt" and "Does yourvagina hurt?" which play off the same offensive idea that girls andwomen are weak or whiney. So, when you hear sexist remarks, an effectiveresponse is something like, "You know, to suggest that females arefragile or uncoordinated is offensive because it's untrue. I'drather you say, 'I don't like your complaining' or'He's not very brave.' You don't have to likeanother person's behavior, but it seems unfair to use femaleequipment or anatomy as a jab." Fag. [Homophobic] Expressions such as "You're a fag"and "That's gay" are said to be homophobic, although manyyoung people who say these things are adopting a linguistic conventionrather than mocking another person's sexual orientation. However,there are times when the homophobia is clear, as when boys comment,"No homo" before hugging one another. (As if all kinds ofphysical closeness were somehow sexual.) Whatever the intent orunderstanding of the speaker, the use of fag, gay, or homo gives you aperfect opportunity to discuss tolerance and diversity in all its forms.So, when you hear, "Arts and crafts are gay," an effectiveresponse is something like, "Hey, if you don't like arts andcrafts, just say so. It's offensive to use words like gay or fagwhen you mean a bad thing or bad person. At camp, we are accepting ofall people, so let's steer clear of words that put down peoplebased on their background or sexual orientation or anything else." Retard. [Mental Health] The literal meaning of retard is "toslow down," but when used as a noun, it becomes derogatoryshorthand for "a mentally retarded person." Expressions suchas "That's retarded" and "She's a retard"vary in offensiveness, but share an insulting view of mental health.Making fun of anyone's psychological condition is touchy, ofcourse. I've even had students with bipolar disorder and attentiondeficit/hyperactivity disorder take umbrage with expressions such as"She's psycho," despite the fact that the speaker wasreferring to a character in a movie. So, when you hear,"You're a retard," an effective response is somethinglike, "I think what you meant was 'You're silly' or'I don't like what you just did.' The word retard isactually a disrespectful way to refer to a person with mentalretardation. Let's find a way to speak about people respectfully,even when we're upset with them." Jesus Christ/God. [Lord's Name in Vain] Religious and secularpeople around the globe use various forms of Jesus Christ as expletives.Although this usage is especially offensive to Christians, speakersprobably don't intend to insult and may not understand the fullmeaning of what they are saying. Nevertheless, it is unbecoming of acamper or a camp leader to exclaim, "Jesus, that was close!"or "Oh, Christ, not another meeting!" or even "Oh my God,that's amazing!" While references to deities in any languageare appropriate during prayer, blessings, and other times of worship,avoiding the expletive usage of sacred terms from any religion isrespectful, plain and simple. So, when you hear someone use holy namesor terms inappropriately, an effective response is something like,"I'm sure you didn't mean to be disrespectful, but usingGod's name as a swear word or as a way to emphasize your point canbe offensive. You can say, 'Oh my gosh' instead and I'llstill understand exactly what you mean." Tone and Timing As with any feedback--to a colleague or a camper--the tone andtiming of your educational admonition must be sensitive. As I advocatedabove, the extremes of ignoring or exploding create their own problems.Between these poles is a middle ground which you must treadthoughtfully. Generally speaking, the gentler your tone and the moreimmediately you proffer feedback about someone's foul language, thebetter. Some instances are straightforward. A simple reprimand, such as"We don't talk that way at camp" or "Pleasedon't use that word," is probably all you need in response tomost basic swear words, like shit. For offensive terms in the categoriesoutlined above, a brief explanation is most helpful. As a youthdevelopment professional, it is your job not only to enforceboundaries--including guidelines for safe talk--but also to clarify whythose boundaries exist. I encourage you to consult the examples aboveand respond to foul language firmly and thoughtfully, in a way that issincere and sounds natural. Discussion Questions Describe some edgy or offensive language not cited in this article.How would you respond to a young person who used these words orexpressions? Different groups of youth are exposed to different culturalsubgroups with different linguistic traditions. What are someexpressions that you grew up using, but would no longer use as an adultwho works with children? People define themselves in part by the words they use. How wouldyou respond to a young person who tells you: "Lay off. That'sjust the way I talk." Christopher Thurber, PhD, ABPP, is a board-certified clinicalpsychologist and the co-founder of ExpertOnlineTraining.com, which hostseducational content for youth development professionals. He designed TheSecret Ingredients of Summer Camp Success, ACA's homesicknessprevention DVD. Contact: firstname.lastname@example.org or visit CampSpirit.com.----------Please note: Some tables or figures were omitted from this article.