Mind your language

Cross posted

In the Dominion Post this morning:


Blue lines on roads in Island Bay mark the furthest point that a worst-case tsunami has been calculated to reach.

Since the lines were painted in February, after consultation with GNS Science, almost every coastal suburb has expressed an interest in having them.

“If there was a big earthquake in Wellington, and you live on the coast and have seen that line on the street, then hopefully you grab your wife and kids and go to behind where that line is,” Wellington emergency management office senior adviser Dan Neely said.

You grab your wife and your kids…

So many possible meanings there. Maybe it’s because only men are capable of taking action, or because men are the ones who take responsibility for action, or because when it comes to disaster planning, we plan for men. Also, you will note that we only plan for nuclear families, and families that have a husband and a wife at that.

It’s such a small thing, but it’s revealing. It shows which people are regarded as being the norm, the average, the ones from whom all others are different.

And it’s so easy to fix. All he needed to say was, “… then hopefully you grab the people around you and go to behind where that line is.”

Maybe that’s what he meant to say. I’m sure he is concerned for the safety of everyone in Wellington. It would just be nice if that thought got out into public discourse too, instead of using language that reinforces notions of men as normative, and women as others who need to be cared for.


12 comments on “Mind your language

  1. suze says:

    Thanks so much for writing this – I’m not even in NZ, but this kind of public sexism needs to be jumped on everywhere. Here in Sydney, in a remark of the same mindless ilk, a man wrote a letter to the paper last week about Tony Blair’s forthcoming lecture tour and ‘joked’ that Blair was doing it to raise “shopping money” for Cherie.
    [A feminist letter in response was published the next day.]

  2. Pavlov's Cat says:

    This may be apocryphal, but I don’t think so — I remember a story coming out of the 2004 tsunami about a little girl on the beach at one of the Thai resorts who saw the abnormal way the sea was pulling right back the way it does when it’s about to dump tons of water on you, and remembering what her teacher had said recently about tsunamis when they were ‘doing’ them at school and running to tell her mother — who to her eternal credit took the child seriously and high-tailed it out of there along with a number of other hotel guests. The kid may have saved dozens of lives. So there you go, a girl and a girl-child at that.

  3. Pavlov's Cat says:

    Aha: that story’s told here: http://www.visit-chiang-mai-online.com/tsunami-thailand.html

    Which also points out that you should follow the elephants, if you can find any.

  4. Stef says:

    The girl’s name was Tilly Smith.

  5. Carol says:

    Pavlov’s Cat: for an example closer home, check out this:
    It’s about a 10 year old Wellington girl who had learned about what to do in a tsunami from her teacher (I think she went to Makara model school).
    Deborah – agree. It’s an important message about tsunami awareness in Island Bay, and what a pity to alienate so many of your audience so unncessarily because of thoughtless language.

  6. WittyKnitter says:

    It does get depressing sometimes that after so many decades of activism this kind of thoughtless language is still being used.

    I used to live in Island Bay, and now I’m wondering where the line is. Most of the suburb is a long flat valley back from the water.

  7. violet says:

    I suspect he was just speaking from a first person perspective – like, if I were saying it I might say “you just grab your hubby and kids…”.

  8. It annoys me when people say these types of things because it’s assuming that every person has a partner and children.

  9. Carol says:

    WK: there are lots of blue lines in Island Bay. On the main road that runs up the valley, it’s well inland from the shopping centre. Approximately 1 km inland, I believe. I haven’t seen all the side streets, but on Milne Terrace, for example, the line is up at 35 m height. The standard advice in the event of a locally generated tsunami is to go at least 1 km inland OR 35 m uphill. But I gather that this advice is likely to be reviewed in light of the Japanese tsunami.
    (apologies for natural disaster threadjack).

  10. M-H says:

    I lived on Medway St, where the New World supermarket is now, so quite a long way back from the shoreline – over a kilometer, I would think. I used to walk down to the park next to the beach most afternoons at that time, pregnant and pushing a toddler. It’s amazing to think of a wall of water smashing up that valley.

  11. […] And as Deborah points out, male remains the default gender. […]

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