Your Difficult Co-Workers Are Not “Sociopaths.” Here’s Why Words Matter.

Your Difficult Co-Workers Are Not “Sociopaths.” Here’s Why Words Matter.

The use of these derogatory (yet commonplace) terms like “crazy” pathologizes our co-workers; here’s why that’s more dangerous than you might realize.

It’s a scene that’s all too familiar: After a tough day at work, while unloading over a glass of happy hour wine with co-workers, the complaints start rolling out: Your boss is a total psycho. That HR lady is crazy. Sheila’s new counterpart is an absolute narcissist.

If you yourself haven’t been the perpetrator of a similar conversation, you’ve almost certainly born witness to it in the last week or day or hour; one would be hard pressed to pass a day in which these terms—adapted from psychology and weaponized to be derogatory—were notthrown around with all the regularity of breathing.

And while it’s true that the conversation surrounding the problematic use of the word “crazy”—which is disproportionately used as a derogatory term against women—has been robust in recent years—you don’t need to be a sociologist or linguist to realize that we’re a long ways from eradicating the word from our daily vernacular.

But the effects of ableist language can have farther-reaching effects that most of us realize. Beyond “crazy” being a word embedded with a long history of misogyny, the casual misuse of terms like “psycho” and “insane” reinforces a stigma surrounding mental health issues that our culture desperately needs to eradicate, considering 1 in 5 adults in the US live with a mental illness in a given year.

As Dr. Lauren Harb, a clinical psychologist at Silver Lake Psychotherapy puts it: “The misuse of clinical terminology leads to widespread misunderstanding about what certain diagnoses actually look like, as well as shame about getting a mental health diagnosis.”

Psychosis—the clinical term for which “psycho” is shorthand—is characterized by very specific symptoms that are almost always a far cry from the behaviors someone is attempting to describe when they call a co-worker a “psycho” (i.e. much as he or she might bug you, your supervisor curtly asking you to file your TPS report on time does not qualify as psychopathic behavior).

“In my experience, it’s usually an attempt to describe a person whose behavior is … out of the ordinary. [Patients] are often talking about someone who is having difficulty regulating their emotions or remaining calm during conflict,” adds Dr. Harb.

But the potential for harm in describing someone as “psycho” is significant: “A diagnosis is really meant to help understand a person’s set of symptoms and deliver the most appropriate treatment,” she says. “Also, using mental health terminology to describe un-remarkable, every day behavior minimizes the severity of certain disorders that really do require clinical attention.”

“For instance, people often use ‘bipolar’ to describe someone who has a mood swing or a change of mind, or they say ‘I’m OCD’ to express that they like to be organized. In reality, if someone actually meets criteria for one of these disorders, it can be very impairing, and very hurtful when people underestimate the full extent of their impairment.”

The use of ableist language employed in everyday, casual settings, is something that disability justice activist Lydia X. Z. Brown confronts regularly in their work to raise awareness around ableist violence as a broad, systemic issue. “Much of the time, people who do this aren’t having conscious thoughts demeaning people with psychosocial disabilities,” they say. “Nevertheless, they are exemplifying a socially pervasive belief system that only some people’s minds are healthy, valuable, worthy, or desirable.”

And Brown points out that the misuse of this language is detrimental to identifying the problems that may truly be underlying the conflict: “Because of ableism, it’s easier to scapegoat disability rather than naming actual problems like unchecked aggression, willful lack of empathy, racism, or misogyny.”

While removing derogatory language from our daily vernacular may seem like a tall order (considering it’s used widely and freely in songs, TV shows, films and just about everywhere else we look in our culture) examples of successfully removing derogatory terms from what’s acceptable abound.

One doesn’t need to look too far back in time to pinpoint the era in which using “gay” or “retarded” as a stand-in for something that’s displeasing, confounding or upsetting was likewise commonplace.

The fact that the misuse of these words have largely been eradicated within the last couple of decades indicates that it simply requires consciousness on our own behaviour and a commitment to driving conversation when we hear it elsewhere.