Anyone who wants to communicate something would agree, perhaps rather naively, that words do indeed matter. Yet even those people don’t always recognize just how much words matter. A single word or a short phrase can carry more meaning than we might ever imagine. And for that reason, communicators need to be careful about their word choices, and watch for people’s reactions to them. They may even be forced to make some hard choices about who they want to communicate with.
Having just lived through yet another frenzy over the non-existent “war on Christmas,” we might find it useful to have a look at why this frenzy arises in the first place. It all has to do with the importance people and groups place on certain words. Even if we don’t understand why, for some people words feel literally like a life-and-death matter.
Fundamentalist right-wing Christians think that when a department store clerk wishes you “Happy Holidays” during a sale, he or she is somehow demeaning Christmas. In fact, say these Christians, the clerk is trying to “take Christ out of Christmas.” This is because they view this solstice celebration as entirely a Christian matter. Even if Jesus himself was probably born in the spring (and even though solstice celebrations have taken place in all cultures for thousands of years), December 25th is the day that the church has chosen to celebrate Jesus’s birth. So the season should be regarded (in their opinion) solely as a Jesus-related season.
Others would maintain that in a society where all citizens are considered equal and are allowed to practise the religion of their choice, it’s only democratic to recognize that more than one festival is celebrated at this time of year. Sometimes the Hindu Diwali is quite close to Christmas. Hanukkah is always just before Christmas, and Kwanzaa is just after it. Sometimes Ramadan also occurs around this time of year. And the New Year celebration is just a week after Christmas. So for these people, it’s not just inclusive but it’s actually logical that all these holidays should be acknowledged. “Happy Holidays” includes Christmas, but it also includes the others too.
For each type of person, it’s not just the phrase, “Merry Christmas,” that is important. What lies behind all of this argument over the two-word phrase is a big difference in what type of society people think they live in. Or, perhaps, would prefer to live in.
For fundamentalist Christians, there really is only one truth — Christianity, focused on Jesus as they define him — and western society should be based entirely on this world view. That would make Christmas the only thing celebrated at this time of year. Others believe that society includes people of all faiths, and that basing a state on only one religion endangers the equal rights of people of other faiths or, for that matter, no particular faith.
I heard a Muslim woman, just prior to Christmas, maintaining that we should be happy to wish people “Merry Christmas,” because it’s the primary celebration at this time of year. And if we’re going to wish her a “Happy Eid” to mark the end of the Muslim Ramadan, she has no problem wishing “Merry Christmas” to Christians. She thinks the two can coexist. Others, who would never dream of wishing her a “Happy Eid,” would prefer to wipe her religion out of existence entirely.
We may think we are being wise and inclusive in our writing, when we choose certain words or phrases. But we must always be aware that someone can still be upset by our choices, however benevolent we may try to be about them. We always need to decide who our audience is, and how we can communicate with them most effectively. If we can choose better words, we should do so.
Yet sometimes it may also be the case that it’s simply not possible to choose words that will please everyone. That, too, will force us to think carefully. We might actually have to choose to write for one audience and not for the other. But we should never be glib about words, and should always try to be aware of the nuances of meaning.