Word Manners

I’m often asked what I teach and I usually answer, “Students.” It’s true, too. My focus is on the students more than the subject matter. The lesson is the framework for helping young people learn to get along with each other while working.

I try to set an example for civil behavior while establishing a respectful mood. The most common form of verbal disrespect is “Shut up!” It can go on and on. “No, you shut up!” How do we get students to stop saying that? Reminding them to “Be the change you want to hear in the world” may not be enough.

A regular teacher might set a classroom rule and enforce it from the start, but we’ve got one class period. If “Shut up!” is used often, we can assume their regular teacher hasn’t established a rule against it. Or at least we know it’s still in their immediate vocabulary even if they aren’t allowed to use it when their teacher can hear.

I think “shut up” and the colloquial “shut the fuck up” come from an emotional part of the brain, so it’s difficult to change the behavior rationally. Instead, I insist on a “please” after these requests. “What’s the magic word?” I ask. Everyone knows what it is, though someone might suggest it’s “Now!”

Some may not be able to hold back their compulsive command, but they’re capable of adding “please” afterward. I reward compliance with, “Thank you for being polite.” And maybe, “People are more willing to do what you ask if you’re nice about it.” Of course they know there’s no way to tell someone to shut the fuck up nicely, so it triggers mental activity—gets their attention.

This potentially has several positive effects:
It tends to defuse the conflict by humorously sidetracking it to a matter of good manners, which it is. It alters the interaction between the people, because adding “please” approaches an apology. It makes fun of the expression, diminishing its power. If no “please” is added after the next STFU, other students often jokingly remind them. This creates a social expectation with far more influence than an authority figure can generate. Ideally, the involuntary reflex pattern of yelling “shut up” will break, as “please” becomes associated with it.

Insults among students aren’t always meant to be taken seriously, but they can still be hurtful to the person targeted and to all who hear them. A heavy-handed approach to stifle them amplifies negative feelings. Making fun of insults can be effective, but has potential for backfiring. A moment of reflection before using a tongue fu maneuver is safer, though timing is critical to effectiveness. A positive attitude and tone of voice ameliorates a failed attempt.

Speaking of intonation, a nearly-obsolete version of “Shut up” means “That’s incredible,” and/or “What you said makes me jealous.” It has a specific rhythm/intonation and should be recognized as normal conversation.

A student couldn’t stop using the F word, so I said, in as serious a tone as I could fake, "Shawn, every time you drop an F-bomb, a kitten dies." That got a hundred on the laugh meter from the class, but not from Shawn. "Why is that so funny?" A student, still laughing, told him, "It was the expression on your face."

A few dangerous defusing expressions:

“You slut.” or “Bitch.”
“Takes one to know one.” (Using childish, singsong rhythm).

“He’s a mutthafuckin’ (whatever)“
“Hey, nobody’s perfect.”

Another approach:
“Oh, don’t call him that. You might hurt his inner child.” To the targeted student: “Are you okay? Don’t take him seriously. Rise above it and be the bigger person. Take a more mature position—tell ’em...” insert childish phrase here:
“I’m rubber and you’re glue... (what you say bounces off me and sticks to you).”
“I know you are but what am I?”
“Sticks and stones may break my bones... (but words will never hurt me)”
“Yo mama.” Better know the students well for that one.

To the insulted student:
“No one can make us feel insulted without our permission.”

To the student insulting:
“We don’t have to put others down to feel good about ourselves.”

An actual exchange:
Girl tells another student, “Fuck you.”
I ask, “What’s the magic word?”
“When you make a request like that you should say ‘Please’.”
Puzzled look. “That doesn’t make any sense.” She tests it out, “Fuck you please.”
“Doesn’t that sound nicer?”
“I’ve found that people are more likely to do what I ask if I’m polite.”
I move on, hoping for thoughtful reflection, though “Weird-ass sub” is a possible reflection.

I try to focus on intent rather than the words, but sometimes a student uses “fucking” as if it were the only adjective in their vocabulary. Letting this slide can lead to other inappropriate behavior.

“Please use euphemisms in school.”
“What’s that?”
“Substituting a nice word for one that shouldn’t be used, like “freaking” instead of dropping F-bombs with every sentence.”
“It’s just a word.”
“Yeah, but school is practice for your future. You finally get a good job and then blow it by saying, ’you want some effin’ fries with that?’”

I never say “fuck” in class. It will be taken out of context in the retelling and it’s disrespectful of the students who find it offensive. It’s disrespectful of all the students, even those who use it constantly, because our words have more weight than their peers in some ways.

This one is ancient:
“Shit!” “I wouldn’t have in my hand what you just had in your mouth.”

One of mine:
“Excuse me, but the word that begins with ’shh’ and ends in ’t’ can’t have an ’ih’ sound in between. It can have an ’oo’ or an ’uh’ but no ’ih’. I don’t know why, that’s just the way it is.”

No discussion of word manners in the US would be complete without the “N” word. First, it’s important to hear the difference between “nigger” and “nigga”. Equally important is the ethnicity of the student using the word and tone of voice. Black students in some schools call each other “nigga” the same way “dude” or “bro” might be used. I ignore it if the tone is cool. It’s rarely okay for a non-black student to use the term. Check reactions.

An actual exchange:
Black student points to another black student, “He called me the N word.”
“Did it end in ‘a’ or ‘er’?”
“Well, it’s okay then.”
He laughed out loud and the exchange was humorously retold for those who didn’t hear. Later, I heard of it being retold for amusement elsewhere in the school.

Appropriating an insulting term within a group is a time-honored method of taking the power out of it, so this will change over time. I have a dream that all people, regardless of the color of their skin, can call each other nigga with full equality. That some day a young person will ask, “Is it true that “nigga” came from a really bad insult?”

“Nigger,” on the other hand means trouble. Intervention is called for, especially if the tone is hostile and used by someone who doesn’t identify as black. It would likely rate a referral, as would “faggot” used the same way, though I think the N-word is arguably the worst. Those are “fightin’ words.”

As we know, tone of voice is almost always more important than the words.

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