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I’ll have the honour of chairing the BMA annual representative meeting this year, and events like these are a really important time for us to think about the language we use when we talk to each other.
This isn’t about ‘political correctness’. It’s about using language in a way which reflects good manners and sensitivity.
Here are some things I’ve learned from my own experience. I’d welcome other suggestions too.
1 Naturally, we spend a lot of time talking about the patients we serve. When we refer to conditions, they’re something a person has, not what a person is. People have diseases, they don't suffer from them.
2 People of the same age group are not one homogenous mass. This may sound obvious, but so often you hear of older (or younger) people supposedly having a collective attitude, or ascribed with the same abilities or lack of them - as if millions of people who happened to be of similar age would all do and say the same thing. This tends to rob people of their individuality.
3 Unless you’re a child prodigy, most people have to wait until they’re adults until they qualify as doctors. So, no woman attending a doctors’ conference, and no other women for that matter, should be referred to as a ‘girl’. ‘Ladies’, ‘love’ and ‘dear’ are regarded as patronising by many women and should be avoided. Instead, we have names and professional titles and we should use them.
4 A distinction is sometimes drawn between LGBTQ+ and ‘straight’ people. This shouldn’t happen. Trans-gender people can be any sexual orientation, including straight. And remember that LGBTQ+ may possibly be referring to both sexual orientation and gender identity.
5 We must put the person before the disability. We should not speak of people as if they are walking, talking disabilities. They are people with a disability. And we should avoid terms that imply normalcy or being healthy when referring to people without a disability. They are simply people without a disability.
6 We should avoid irrelevant ethnic descriptions as we avoid irrelevant gender descriptions of people. And if we speak of the ethnicity of an individual, it is better to say what they are – for example black or Asian – rather than group them all together under the collective name – ‘black and minority ethnic’ given to all people who are not part of the white majority in the UK.
7 It’s best to avoid Christian-centric terms. So ‘Helena’ is my first name rather than my Christian name.
8 And finally, a very specific one which a colleague shared with me recently. If you are looking for a conversation starter with a women at a conference, then by all means talk about the weather, and how they got there, but it can be a real wind-up to be asked about the husband left at home, having to somehow look after the kids without burning the fish fingers. It’s a statement one often hears, and contains so many assumptions. Would you ask a man about his female partner at home, having to look after the kids, poor thing? I doubt it.
Helena McKeown is acting chair of the BMA representative body
Good to see leadership from the top, Acting Chair. How are we to address you?
Please feel free to call me Helena when I’m not chairing the meeting. During the meeting it’s appropriate to refer to the acting chair of the meeting as acting chair, thank you for asking.