A student recently sent me an article about person-first language. The article does a great job of exploring different perspectives on why some people prefer to use person-first language. In this case, the language of choice is “a person with autism” while others still feel more comfortable calling themselves, “an autistic person.” What I especially like about the article is that it ends by calling people to engage in meaningful conversation about the topic.

Here at the foundation, we support the use of person-first language and have a handy brochure available on the topic. We recognize that everyone has a choice in the words we use to describe ourselves, others and the world around us. These choices have a powerful effect on how we view mental health and people with mental health conditions. It’s important to respect people’s preferences for the words used to identify them and describe their life experiences.

I used to conduct a good deal of diversity education workshops, and the issue of language was central in talking about various cultural identities. Inevitably, people would say, “Isn’t it just being PC (politically correct) to use a particular term?” After responding to that type of question several times, I developed my own “counter-acronym.” I would say, “No, I think it’s being ‘CP…Culturally Perceptive.'” It’s understanding why some people want to be called one term and not another and having the courage and empathy to ask about the history behind their choice.

Often times in trainings, people would request “the list” of terms that they should stick to in order to stay out of trouble and not offend anyone. There is no such list. People feel differently about the way they self-label and still others dislike labels altogether. A great example is the word “queer.” Some lesbian and gay individuals see the word as a reclaimed politically-empowering term, while others still see it as a hurtful slur from a prior generation. I encourage people to ask about preferences and like this article suggests, to discuss the topic.

I was once in a meeting, where someone asked “What’s the difference between ‘Latino’ and ‘Hispanic’?” Another person responded, “It depends on which week you ask someone?” and then laughter broke out. I took a deep breath, and gave an explanation about the history of each term and why one may be preferred over the other. I hope we can all be respectful of why labels matter to individuals, can continue to educate each other, and engage in discussions on this topic that may lead to greater understanding.