Avoiding the word “normal”

Future Of Journalism / Writing

Very few words are as telling about your worldview as the word “normal.”

I think a lot about the power of words. I started thinking about the interpretation of language in English Literature class, when I was taught to attempt to illustrate every possible understanding of a particular noun phrase to build a passable case for my interpretation of the author’s intentions.

Most of the time, I felt I was analysing why the curtains were blue.

But it gave me an appreciation for the power of words, and the improbable possibility of deriving the author’s “attitudes and values” from their choice of language. What you say and don’t say are strong indicators of who you are and what you believe.

So I believe we should stop using the word “normal” as an adjective, especially when we’re describing people and their traits.

“Normal” is a subjective term. It suggests there is some collective sense of normalcy, and connotes a value system where deviance from the standard is somehow unsavory or intolerable.

Sometimes it’s okay to use the term, particularly when such norms are fundamental: the belief in a free press to oversee and report on the government is a fundamental norm in American society.

Most of the time, though, it simply demonstrates the author’s narrow-mindedness and lack of exposure to the world.

I once called out a fellow student of journalism for describing a desire to hear a “normal accent” in a video featuring an obviously-fake British accent; while the voice was horrible, the idea of a “normal” accent only exists if you believe there is somehow a standard accent that’s desirable, and usually it’s your own.

Meanwhile, you imply you believe all other accents are less desirable, and you — epitomized by your accent — are higher status than the other people who speak different from how you do.

I don’t believe this particular individual meant any harm. But using the phrase “a normal accent” conveys a particular system of values, like using phrases such as “a normal person” to describe an able-bodied individual, or “a normal color” to describe someone’s race and ethnicity.

It doesn’t mean it isn’t common experience for you. But believing that the human attributes familiar to you is “normal” implies, at best, a naive understanding of the world around you; at worst, a narrow-minded, bigoted and regressive perspective of the rich fabric of humanity.

We have perfectly acceptable alternatives to communicate a better meaning than “normal”: common, usual, typical. It is not normal for someone in the United States to be white or Caucasian: it is common. It is not normal for black and African-American communities to be disproportionately impacted by U.S. governments, law enforcement, and the criminal justice system: it is typical.

My second lesson in journalism school was how to shorten phrases to convey meaning more compactly. This includes replacing long phrases such as “located at the intersection of Johnson and Madison Avenues” with “near Johnson and Madison.”

But my first lesson at Medill was accuracy is the single, overriding value in journalism.

In an Internet age where word limits are no longer defined by column inches on a page, we can afford to be more accurate by using more words. The shortcut afforded by “normal” is no longer appropriate.