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THE BLOG

This Holiday Season, It Is the Thought That Counts

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Festively wrapped Christmas gifts
Festively wrapped Christmas gifts

Co-authored with Tamara Carroll, a director and teaching artist focused on developing new works and theatre for young audiences. She is an MFA candidate in Drama & Theatre for Youth & Communities at The University of Texas at Austin.

I don't understand what the big deal is...
If you're Jewish, tell me 'Happy Hanukkah,'
If you're a Christian, tell me 'Merry Christmas'
If you're African American, tell me 'Joyous Kwanza'
... because honestly, if you can't see past the words of the wish to its good intent, then it's not the holiday well-wisher whose broken, it's you...

As Christmas approaches, some version of this quotation has been cropping up daily in our Facebook newsfeed, met with "likes" and general agreement that people just need to "lighten up," and appreciate well wishes in the spirit they are intended.

After all, in this season of giving, it's the thought that counts, right?

And yet, who hasn't been on the receiving end of some truly terrible gifts? Gifts that make us feel that the giver, generous and well intentioned though they may be, is offering us something that they would like to receive, and not actually thinking about us at all.

Aside from the fact that the above missive skims over important nuances around race, religion, ethnicity and culture (and that is a big aside), it also suggests that intentions matter more than impact.

And while intentions certainly matter, we believe that impact is a big deal -- especially if you're continuously being asked to lean toward the majority or "lighten up."

According to Pew Research, 90 percent of all Americans celebrate Christmas.

Also according to Pew, when shopping at this time of year 42 percent of Americans prefer to be greeted with Merry Christmas and 12 percent with Happy Holidays. But 46 percent said that it did not matter.

In advocating that "Merry Christmas," or any of those holiday lines for that matter, can be a one size fits all greeting, quotes like this imply that it doesn't matter what you say or to whom you say it, as long you say it with good intentions and cheer.

But isn't suggesting that everyone accept "Merry Christmas" as an all-encompassing, catch-all holiday greeting much like saying that someone should take "Happy Birthday" as just another way of saying "Good afternoon," or "Great job on that presentation"?

By behaving as though what is true for the majority can be applied to everyone, we miss out on nuance, individuality, and diversity. We miss out on knowing more about the people around us.

What would happen if we all paid more attention to the impact of our well wishing and the assumptions that often underpin our every-day language?

While some people may roll their eyes and make jokes about the "PC mania" that has spread into schools, educators are finding it increasingly important to be more thoughtful about majority-centric language.

In recent years, we've seen some schools across the nation make small efforts toward greater inclusion through efforts such as referring to "Christmas break" as "Winter break" and addressing official communications to "parents and guardians" rather than "mom and dad."

In general, language and attitudes towards minority populations inform and affect how they are viewed and treated, as well as how they feel about themselves and their place in the world. Intentional or not, majority-centric language makes people feel like they don't belong.

To be sure, people's intentions do matter, and starting out with the assumption that people mean well is helpful in engaging with family, friends, and colleagues -- especially over the holidays.

However, assumptions about people's identity are problematic and often do not feel celebratory.

Most people appreciate being seen and recognized -- whether by someone remembering your actual birthday, making a dish that accommodates your highly individualized food allergies, or doesn't make assumptions about your identity.

Benefitting from living in a diverse and multifaceted country, and making that country welcoming and appreciative of all kinds of people, means acknowledging people's unique beliefs, values, experiences, and desires.

And this means that members of the "majority" might need to check egocentric language and avoid assuming that everyone is like them, or should appreciate what they appreciate.

If we subscribe to the notion that the "thought" is what counts, let's be more thoughtful about our words and assumptions during this holiday season, and in the year to come.