• Mark Palmer

What’s the matter with “everybody”?

Some years ago, a TV advert for a cosmetic product included the phrase “everybody’s talking about it.” This irritated me greatly for several reasons. Firstly, I am embracing my emergence into the category of a grumpy old man and can find causes for irritation in all sorts of places. Secondly, if everybody was talking about it, the manufacturer surely would not need to spend money on advertising. And finally, I was not talking about it, so the statement was just not true.

Our society seems to be finally waking up to the fact that language is important. Using racist language quite rightly has serious consequences, though it was not always the case. Specifying your choice of pronouns is now becoming a norm. We are beginning to embrace diversity more in the words we use.

But do we consider diversity properly when making generalisations? This has become an issue for me recently in how employers are trying to persuade people to return to work in the office. A Statement such as “office working is better for everybody” is made, to try and justify requiring reluctant workers to put their health at risk when they have been doing their job perfectly well at home for 18 months (can you tell which side of the argument I am on?!)

If we are talking about a group of people of any size, I think we have to be very careful when using words like “everybody” and “everyone”. Once you get a group of more than 2 or 3 people, there are likely to be very few statements that apply properly to them all. If you have a group numbering in hundreds or thousands, such as all the employees of a large organisation, there may be almost nothing that applies to “everybody”.

I have started to challenge these generalisations, and one defence offered is that “everybody” does not actually mean “everybody”, but “most” or “the majority”. The response of my literal autistic brain to this is why not say that then?

For here is the key point to me. If we say “everyone” or “everybody” about a group, and somebody in that group feels that the statement does not actually apply to them, it says to them that they do not matter.

Saying that “the office is a better place for everybody to work” fails to recognise that for some neurodivergent and disabled workers, offices are terrible places to work, and the last 18 months have been the most productive and possibly pain free of their working lives. We have been in complete control of our working environments and have not had to deal with the physical and mental issues of a commute. So, saying that the office is better for all of us can be seen as saying that our needs do not matter and that we do not matter. That is not OK.

Diversity must be reflected in both our actions and our language. Most of the time, saying “most people” instead of “everybody” would take little, if anything, away from the statement being made. But what is even better is “some people”. Acknowledge that diversity means that there is very little that applies to all.

Yes, we have much in common, but we also have much that is different. Even what is different about us differs – there are very few traits common to absolutely everybody, and that is a very good thing indeed. So, in any group of people, let us strive to make everybody feel included and valued, and do not make assumptions in the language used.

Everybody wants to feel valued and included.

-- Mark Palmer is a freelance writer specialising in mental health, autism and neurodiversity. He can be contacted through his website www.markpalmerwriter.co.uk, by email at mark@markpalmerwriter.co.uk, on LinkedIn and on twitter @MarkPWriter.