Vocabulary won’t save us

Alastair Somerville
2 min readAug 27, 2018

I was wrong on Saturday and this post is an apology and an explanation.

I retweeted a long thread about Gender and Sex. It was an attempt to use scientific language to describe the issues of gender fluidity and transsexualism. I generally avoid this area as I have no relevant knowledge, experience or opinion. I am extremely aware that it is very contentious. The retweeted thread did not help. The language made more divisions with categories that served no benefit to the people who live the actual experience.

Words are not neutral

I retweeted the thread as I got trapped by the easy bias to think that words, particularly scientific words, are neutral. That diagnosis and description are not themselves positions with power and privilege.

The odd thing is I know this. Accessibility work means I often encounter people trying to stop the use of medical language to describe them. The Social Model of Disability is one way of trying to move on from the Medical Model of Disability.

Yet the bias to believe words are neutral is easy.

Vocabulary is not enough

The other reason I should have realised there was a problem is current work in emotional design and AI.

I have been working both Nonviolent Communication and Counselling methods to try and understand how emotion can be properly integrated into human/machine conversations.

What has become clear is that more words, more ways of describing emotions, is not the solution. Granularity does not help. It is not the vocabulary problem that people imagine because even with more words, there is still confusion and miscommunication. I still cannot know what you feel as I still cannot know what you really mean with those words, in this time and place.

Places for listening

So, really, I should have not retweeted the thread and I should have continued to simply listen.

Much is made of communicating better now. Practicing listening and holding spaces for others to talk is something we may need more of. Listening to how people speak of themselves and their experiences is more valuable than overlaying more categories and imposing vocabularies that aggravate and wound.



Alastair Somerville

Sensory Design Consultant, usability researcher and workshop facilitator. www.linkedin.com/in/alastair-somerville-b48b368 Twitter @acuity_design & @visceralUX