Science and Other Drugs

….maybe a little less wrong….

Sexism and specificity

Image courtesy NASA

This photo of the Crab Nebula shows a brilliant pulsar at the center. A tightly packed sphere of subatomic particles heavier than the Sun but smaller in size than New York City, it rotates thirty times each second, sweeping Earth with a beam of x-rays like clockwork. Initially, pulsars like this were thought to be communication from aliens due to the regularity of their pulses.

I’m a flight attendant; don’t call me a stewardess.

I’ll be the last person (okay, maybe not the last, but pretty far down on the list) to complain that people are too worked up over political correctness. But I was amused on my way to work today when I heard the radio DJ (who, apparently, ought to be referred to as a “radio personality”) talking about different names for different professions, and what tends to offend people. The dental hygienest who called in insisted on not being called a “dental assistant”; a nurse called in who was tired of the nurse/male nurse distinction; a lady firefighter complained about being called a “fireman”. It was a fairly substantial list.

And then one of the other guys in the studio who said he was a part-time server complained about being called a “waiter”.

It’s not about political correctness, it’s about being respectful and not hurting people’s feelings. I’m a server; ‘waiter’ and ‘waitress’ aren’t cool.

Wait, what? I waited tables all through college and no one ever made a big deal out of this. Waiters were guys, waitresses were girls, servers were the gender-neutral conglomerate of the two.

For positions that are stereotypically gender-specific (flight attendant, nurse, salesperson, firefighter, chairperson), it’s good practice to maintain gender-neutral language, just for the sake of sense and sensitivity. Arguments can be made over whether society is too sexist or too politically correct, but it doesn’t really matter to me. If you find using gender-neutral terms to be too labor-intensive, that’s probably the sign of a bigger problem.

But waiting tables is not stereotypically “male” or “female”. So using “server” when you have a particular individual in mind seems oddly obtuse.

“My cousin is a server.”

“My cousin is a waitress.”

The second sentence has the same number of words, but communicates more information. Higher information density and higher specificity are good things; we say “He demanded” rather than “He asked” if we want to embed additional connotations (e.g. intensity or frustration) into our communication. We value specificity in language; it’s why the Newspeak of Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty Four and the destruction of ideas in Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451 are both galling.

So while we do our best to avoid promoting sexism, let’s try not to artificially inflate language along the way.

Which brings us back to the waiter who wanted to be a server. I just couldn’t help thinking that he was only complaining about this because someone told him to….which is fairly amusing.

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