Welcome to the Sidebar’s advice column, where we sit down for a chat with our very own Muffle. Her advice might be bad, but hey, at least someone’s listening. Today we’re talking about language and gate-keeping.
I have a friend I primarily talk to via text. We don’t live close to each other, and phone calls are gross, so our day-to-day chatting is mostly written down. The problem is that my friend is a terrible writer, and it seems like she’s incapable of writing a single line without some egregious typo or misspelling. It’s really affecting my impression of her as a person!
When we used to live nearby and talk face-to-face, I was confident that my friend was smart, funny, and sophisticated. But now that I’m constantly bombarded by these errors, I find myself thinking less of her. I worry that this bias is changing how I talk to her, and that it’s going to end up ruining our friendship. Does this make me a terrible person? Can I tell her about my issue and ask her to use her auto-correct function? Or should I just get over myself and grow up?
When I was younger, I was very smug about my writing ability. I began to shine as a fluent writer sometime around middle school, and relied on my strength in popping out coherent, well-phrased written work throughout my academic career. I was proud that I knew the rules, and shameless about pointing out when others didn’t: I once single-handedly shamed and nagged a childhood friend into permanently eradicating “ain’t” from her vocabulary. I’m sure everyone found this delightful and not at all obnoxious.
The reason this kind of stringent adherence to the structures of grammar, punctuation, and spelling appealed to me was because I was a very anxious child with a strong need for approval. If I were following the rules and getting things “right,” then I was praised and rewarded, and the world felt safe and comfortable. If I made a mistake… well, anything might happen. For all I knew, the difference between “there,” “their,” and “they’re” was keeping the sun in the sky.
Once I grew up and started to overcome some of these fears, I also started to gravitate away from my pride in rule-following. I also met more people with a greater variety of experiences, and began to recognize that being able to write fluently is a greater reflection of privilege than it is of ability: I wasn’t a great writer because I was smart and good, (and hence, people who were not were dumb and bad). I was able to write because I had been afforded the opportunities of a quality education, and the benefits of parents who valued and pushed me toward the written word. Slowly, I realized that insisting on perfection (or, at least, superior performance) in how people express themselves is a kind of gate-keeping meant to exclude those who haven’t experienced those benefits from the in-club of the well-educated elite. It was never that I didn’t understand my friend when she used “ain’t;” her communication was every bit as effective as mine when I used “isn’t.” Instead, I was interpreting her language as a symptom of inferiority, and passing judgment on her for something that was just part of her history and her upbringing. That, in a word, is bullshit.
I tell you this because I get why your friend’s errors bug you so much. When you’ve internalized that, to be taken seriously, one must speak and write correctly, every mistake sounds like a klaxon in your head blaring “DUMB BAD STUPID WRONG” over and over. But that’s something that you need to work on, not your friend. I still have to resist the urge to roll my eyes at a particularly bad grammatical mistake, or misuse of a word that I know like the back of my hand. But that says a lot more about me and the society that has trained me to discount the words of others when they don’t fit into a certain mold than it does about the person saying them.
To be clear, there are times where accuracy and care in one’s expression are necessary—you should, for instance, make sure that your resumé is free of typos and grammar fumbles, which can indicate that you are careless or lack an eye for detail. But when it comes to the informal (and hopefully mutually affectionate) context of chatting with a friend, I think you would be best-served by unpacking why your friend’s errors bother you so much, rather than forcing her to adopt your standards.
Snark and tipples,
Got a question for Muffle? Send it to firstname.lastname@example.org.