The Story of People

As many know, I can have strong opinions. Some would say conservative opinions. Sometimes I can tell you were the opinion came from, providing facts and figures of support. Other times, it simply is – this is one of those times. I hate the word people. I find it condescending, degrading, and disrespectful. And now, I am trying to determine why.

  1. Human beings in general or considered collectively.
  2. The citizens of a country, esp. when considered in relation to those who govern them.

So…general or collective. I am going to talk about a group of individuals in a general sense…or am I going to talk about people? This word is at the forefront of my mind right now because I recently drove from Texas to Minnesota and passed several Wal-Mart distribution centers with their tagline: Our PEOPLE make the difference. Ahhhh! It grates my skin.

I often hear others begin comments with “These people” or “Those people“…does that mean they are talking about a group of individuals of which they (or we) are not a part. I often perceive these comments as condescending and negative. Does this individual feel as though they rank above the group they are speaking of? I cannot say that I have ever been the subject of one’s such reference to people, but it bothers me a great deal. For example, I have had coworkers who have referred these people, as in our clients who are overweight or unhealthy, and implying that they are helpless, needy, annoying, unintelligent, etc. An individual who is overweight is not less of a person…so why would I speak of the population in such a degrading manner? Perhaps it affects me because I have been overweight and one of those people and I remember what if feels like to feel like you are treated as less of a person as a result. Further, I know I use this hypervigilance, being careful not to marginalize or degrade any population or group with my word choices.

As an over-analyzer  I try to determine where my perception begins. I’m brought back to 2004, in a class with Dr. Ruth Cronje…she told us that use of the word people should be avoided due to the resulting negative connotation. The birth of my perception that people is a negative word! So is this accurate? In my world it is. Then again…this is the same professor whose class 80% of us had to retake…

Back to people. “We the people…” begins the Constitution of the United States. This introductory clause is contradictory to me (based on my perceptions). Here is why: We is indicative of the speaker being a member of the group. As noted by Mr. Fred Rogers, using the collective pronoun ‘we’ when referring to oneself is representative of an individual who is others-centered rather than self-centered. However, we is quickly followed by people. And yet, I do not perceive this to be condescending – whether within the Constitution or independent of it.

I think that I’m getting somewhere with this…let’s take a look at the chorus lyrics of John Legend’s song, Ordinary People:

We’re just ordinary people
We don’t know which way to go
Cuz we’re ordinary people

Again, use of we in association with peopleimplying that the author is a member of the group – which he in fact is in this song. Therefore, use of the word people is not perceived (by me) as condescending. 

Final thought: As one would predict, the perception of whether use of the word people is condescending is dependent upon the context – both environmentally and rhetorically. I still don’t like the word and you will rarely hear me use it…although as I think about this, one of my favorite pastimes is drawing stick people that represent others in my life…

So how does people make you feel? What is your initial reaction to the word?