Breaking down the modal barriers with language

The fundamental attribution error leads us to interpret the behavior of others as reflecting something inherent about those people, more than is warranted. However, the language we use plays a role in that judgment as well. Our labels often describe who people are instead of what they’re doing, e.g. pedestrians, cyclists, transit users, or drivers. Each one of those terms gives us a category to which those people belong, making it easier to attribute their actions as reflecting some property of members of that category. That, in turn, makes it more difficult to progress towards a multimodal and sustainable transportation system.

I propose a different and deliberate use of language to mitigate this:

  • Old: pedestrians. New: people on foot, or people walking.
  • Old: cyclists. New: people on bikes, or people cycling.
  • Old: transit users. New: people on transit.
  • Old: drivers or motorists. New: people in cars, or people driving.

Sometimes we’re in cars, sometimes we’re on transit, sometimes we’re on bikes, and sometimes we’re on foot. But we’re all people, and our perspectives are much more similar than the facile modal categories lead us to believe.


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10 responses to “Breaking down the modal barriers with language”

  1. John Bailo says :

    All of the old terms have become so loaded with attribution that I think what you suggest is good.

    A clean cognitive broom.

  2. Jarrett says :

    The de-nouning of human classifications is an endless rhetorical struggle, embodied in such aspirational terms as “people of color” and “people with disabilities.” Ultimately, the nouns (black, the disabled, pedestrians, cyclists) are more accurate reflections of how humans categorize the world, and also appeal to the fundamental pressure toward linguistic brevity.

    In the 80s, amid one of the bouts of the gender wars, it occurred to me that the word “men” was just too laden with prejudice and historical baggage, and that we should insist on being called “people with penises.” Obviously, it didn’t catch on.

    • Michael Druker says :

      The possible difference here is that modal categories are more situational and more fluid — people fall into multiple categories on a regular basis.

      You’re right, though — it’s futile to expect language to embrace complexity, but the terms could still serve a useful rhetorical purpose.

  3. arthemie says :

    but do you think that some ppl do see and pride themselves as a “driver” or a “biker” and doing so they would feel they’ve lost an identity? sometimes, the mode of transportation is used to make a statement about who the person is. for example, i have a car. but i bus to school. when people ask, “why do you bus when you have a car?” it annoys me because it’s obviously for environmental reasons. why on earth would i choose a more difficult mode of transportation? so choosing to take the bus to me reflects my concern for the environment, which is part of my identity.

    • Michael Druker says :

      People have all kinds of reasons for using a transportation mode, and I’d rather err on the side of making fewer assumptions about the reasons behind the choice. At least when I’m describing the choices of others.

      How you describe yourself is your prerogative. Some of the responses to my post on “avid cyclists” made it quite clear that for some it is an important part of their identity.

    • john bailo says :

      More importantly, a person in a car, who sees a “cyclist” may dehumanize him…thinking that he does not have the same rights as the motorist, or that he “doesn’t pay for this road”.

      If we are all People, who are using different modalities to get around, then we may be more alert and aware and give each other more room and make the roads safer.

  4. Marie says :

    I this is more important than people consciously recognize. They’re just words, yet they have a subtle power to alter the framework of our perceptions. It reminded me of something Ramsoomair (Waterloo candidate for Mayor) said about the city’s future plans proposal – that it’s all about things, and people aren’t mentioned anywhere. When the document suggests we celebrate diversity, it actually goes on to clarify a diversity of structures not people. That focus makes a difference to the outcome.

  5. JB says :

    I really like this – as a social psychologist, it definitely appeals. Though, I’m as guilty as anyone of using divisive language. It’s easy to curse out “motorists,” but I hadn’t really thought about how that just fortifies the barriers to progress.

  6. Buckminster says :

    But please factor in “scooterists” and “motorcyclists.”

    Can we expand this to have signals at crosswalks that say “YOUR TURN” and “WAIT YOUR TURN”?

  7. Steven Vance says :

    I’ve started using the term, “bike riders,” instead of bicyclists. But that’s still not the same as “people biking” or “people riding bikes.”

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