It’s hard not to be sentimental, emotional, even sensitive around February 14, while surrounded as we are by hearts, flowers, chocolate, and conversation hearts. Although scholarly writing would seem to not have much in common with a holiday revolving around love, the lesson of sensitivity that comes with the day is worth exploring.
When meeting a new person of (romantic) interest, do you call him or her by whatever name you choose or by his or her actual name? I hope you would use the name or nickname your potential beloved prefers. In the same way, be conscious of the labels and tone you use when discussing individuals and groups of people in your work. The Publication Manual of the American Psychological Association (6th ed.) has a large section (Reducing Bias in Language, pp. 70–77) as well as supplemental material (see also these documents on gender, sexual orientation, and disabilities) devoted to explaining how to discuss individuals with respect and accuracy. It is all important reading for specific recommendations; in the meantime, here are some general guidelines to keep in mind.
• Be precise. For example, school-age females could mean different things to different people. Fifth-grade African American girls who score in the top 10% of their class in math is a much more specific and thus more helpful description.
• Mention differences only when relevant. If marital status, sexual orientation, racial or ethnic identity, or disability don’t have an effect in your experiment, don’t mention those characteristics gratuitously in your article or report.
• Call people what they want to be called. Some terms can be perceived as pejorative or patronizing (e.g., the elderly, handi-capable); do not use them.
• Don’t reduce a person or group of people to a condition (e.g., the demented, the autistic). Instead, identify participants first as people (e.g., people with dementia, people with autism).
Also, consider whether the terms you are using have any unintended or colloquial meaning(s) that you do not want to bring to your article or paper. For example, see the beginning of my second paragraph. “Person of interest”? Anyone who has seen any police procedural show (or, indeed, Person of Interest) knows that person of interest is often used as a euphemism for someone suspected by the police of committing a crime. (The smooth operators among you can spin this into “the crime—of stealing my heart!” but the rest of us may be more likely to shy away from a real-life person of interest, and we certainly wouldn't want to be one.)
Finally, if you’re talking about colleagues or researchers who disagree with your outlook or argument, afford them the same respect and sensitivity in your paper that you would like them to extend to you in theirs. As the Publication Manual says, “differences should be presented in a professional, noncombative manner” (p. 66). For example, Dr. Jones may be right in reporting, “Satipo betrayed his lack of character by not throwing me the whip after I threw him the idol,” but the editors of Archeology Today would likely prefer a more neutral wording, such as “Satipo did not throw me the whip after I threw him the idol.”
In the end, keep in mind that both in writing and in life, a little sensitivity can go a long way!