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  • Writer's pictureSarah Johnson

Words count. Choose the right ones.

Updated: Sep 28, 2018

I listen to NPR a lot when I’m driving. I have to be in the car anyway, so I might as well learn something while I’m there. A recent NPR interview really got my attention, but not for the topic at hand. The interview focused on an impending worker shortage in the seafood-processing business, due to the United States’ new guest-worker visa “lottery.” Due to this new policy, there will be fewer seasonal workers available for Maryland’s crab-processing plants.

I know this isn't a crab.

The owner of a Maryland plant described the impact this policy will have on his business. He’s been hiring seasonal workers from Mexico for decades, but this year he’s unable to staff his plant. He knows that not just anyone can do this work. “These girls have experience,” he says. “They are skilled, and they do an excellent job.” He obviously knows and appreciates his workers’ abilities.

But his use of the word “girls” to refer to his employees bothered me, even though it was used in a positive context: “Some of these girls pick 40, 50 pounds of crab meat a day.” The plant owner wasn’t trying to be offensive. However, his workers aren’t children. Referring to grown women as “girls” smacks of vintage offices thick with cigar smoke, where women are the secretaries who receive orders and some light sexual harassment from their (invariably male) bosses. “Girls” implies a casual condescension that has no place in a professional environment in 2018.

I need that client's project by tomorrow morning!

The good news is that it’s pretty easy to substitute a better word for an iffy one. An earlier interview of the very same seafood plant owner has him referring to his workers as “ladies,” instead of “girls.” (“Ladies,” though? I suppose it does grant people the distinction of adulthood…) I don’t know why he decided to use one term instead of another. Probably he doesn’t realize there’s a difference. But a single change in word choice impacted my view not only of his relationship with his workers, but also of the seafood industry as a whole. I know all this will be on my mind the next time I eat a crab cake.

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