Code words can trigger unpleasant memories

January 30, 2013

CALGARY, AB, Jan. 30, 2013/ Troy Media/ – DEAR ANNE – I don’t know what happened. I was just talking with my friend when they suddenly got mad at me and walked away. It must have been something I said, but I don’t know what it could have been. What do I do?

A – This could be a simple misunderstanding or a more complex situation. At this point, you don’t know if something you said triggered a terrible memory for them, or if a word or phrase you used has a different meaning for them than it does for you.

Words are little information packets. We stuff words with our memories and the things we learn. For example, the word ‘cat’ will contain different information (have different meanings) for someone who has a pet cat than for someone who hates cats or for someone who looks after the lions and tigers at the zoo. Same word, different meanings.

When we talk with someone, we assume that the other person has exactly the same meanings for all the words as we have. Usually, the different bits are additional information. Sometimes, the different bits are part of the central core meaning of the words. And sometimes, the different bits are actually nasty and not part of the original or usual meaning of the word.

For example, in the U.S. the word ‘lazy’ can be used as a racist code word, as a hidden attack. When racial discrimination became illegal and openly racist words like the N-word became socially unacceptable, those who were racist started adding racist meanings to ordinary words, turning them into racist code words. The victims (mostly blacks) learned what these code words are; most white haven’t. The result is that a white person can be labelled as a racist for using these code words, even though they don’t know they have become racist code words.

It could be that a word or phrase you used is a racist code word or has an insulting meaning for your friend. Your friend might have assumed that you knew the word or phrase was very insulting to them. They’d be upset not only because you used that word, but also because you didn’t know it was an insult.

The best thing to do is to talk with your friend. Start by apologizing because what you said hurt them, even though you had no intention of hurting them. I’d suggest, ‘I’m sorry that what I said hurt you. I don’t know what it was that I said that hurt you. Would you please tell me what upset you.’

If they tell you it brought back bad memories, you can let them know you’ll try to avoid triggering that bad memory. They don’t have to tell you everything for you to be able to do this. For example, if it involved helicopters, you can try avoid talking about helicopters.

If they tell you that a specific word is an insult to them, then you can avoid that word. They may or may not be willing to explain why the word is an insult. All you need to know to avoid a word is that it is an insult to your friend.

Talk with your friend. Listen to what they say even if it’s hard to hear. Take the appropriate action to restore peace to your friendship.

Troy Media Columnist Anne McTavish is a conflict coach and lawyer, and her website is

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