‘Get a life, it's just a slogan ...'
Last week, I was reading Facebook in the morning as I always do, when I came across a harrowing post from a friend. Her teenage daughter had suffered a violent, unprovoked attack at school the day before – pulled down to the ground by her hair by another girl, and punched and kicked as a group of kids thronged around them watching. I was appalled at what I read, and felt so sad for my friend, who felt devastated and powerless.
Fast forward a few hours later, and I’m out shopping with a couple of friends when we come across a set of T-shirts in Primark. I was shocked by the slogan written on one of them:
You can’t sit with us! (by) Mean Girls
as well as a seemingly innocuous one that read
On Wednesdays we wear pink!
To say I was gobsmacked was an understatement. Especially when I posted it on Twitter and Facebook, found myself a media sensation for two days and was treated to a barrage of criticism largely based on ‘Stop overreacting and get a life - it’s just a slogan’.
Is this really just a slogan?
There’s an old childhood song that goes ‘Sticks and stones may break my bones, but words will never hurt me’, but that is simply untrue. Words are more powerful than we like to think, and can wound just as much as any punch or slap in the face. I just have to listen to my clients - in fact, I only have to look back through my own backstory - to find that it’s what people have said to me that has taken the longest time to get over. And whilst a few of them have come to the therapy room to get over physical abuse many, many more have come to deal with the feelings of isolation and lack of self-worth they feel from being excluded from a particular social group. It may have been a family group, a friendship group or a societal one, it’s different for every one of them. What makes them the same, however, is that it’s taken them a long time to get over it.
I felt it was really important to speak out against these T-shirts. I believed, and still do, that it normalises and legitimises this kind of behaviour - the attitude of ‘us and them’, that we all have to look and act the same in order to fit in. Very many people have tried and failed to fit themselves into the straitjacket of what’s expected of them, shrinking and squeezing their brilliance into the beige sameness of everyday life in a quest to be accepted - acceptable.
I work with these people every day. Many of them wouldn’t see that T-shirt and think it was funny. Many would see the slogan and be reminded of times in their life when they were made to feel like the odd one out … and maybe still do. Like the weirdo. And (as many people on social media like to think) these people are not social outcasts, they’re not sitting in their front rooms watching daytime TV, unable to go out because the world is too much for them. They’e holding down jobs. They’re raising families. They’re going about their daily business, and they’re carrying heavy stuff that you would never guess at. You can’t possibly tell whom a slogan like this is going to trigger. Wouldn’t it best to just not have it on a T-shirt at all?
It’s NEVER just a slogan. Ever.
One of my favourite Presuppositions of NLP, and perhaps one of the most tricky to get your head around, is this one:
The meaning of your message is the response you get.
This means that it doesn’t matter what you intended, the real meaning of your message is how people respond to it. It’s basically a warning to us to make sure that we are communicating our message as clearly as possible. It’s all very well to say that there’s a context to your message, that everyone should recognise and understand the message, but what if people don’t understand the context of the message that appears so clear to you? What if they just read the series of words? And what if those words elicit a completely different response to the one you intended?
Primark told me that it was a T-shirt intended for adults, as if that made it all right. I think that makes it worse - I mean, who is Primark’s main market? Teenagers. And which department are teenage girls going to shop in exactly? Sheesh.
I stood up for what I believed was right. For the people who aren’t strong enough to make their voices heard yet. I stood up for my daughters and their friends, who have experienced some Mean Girl behaviour and may encounter more in the future as they grow up. I got a lot of stick for it, for putting my head above the parapet and yeah, I got shot down a bit. But what made it worthwhile was that most people agreed with me and if it encouraged debate, all the better. Some people commented that I had only done it to get clients, or for my fifteen minutes of fame. It’s a shame that they think that way, but they’re telling their story, not mine. And I hope that my story, when looking back, reads:
She cared. And she wanted to make the world a better place.
And that isn’t just a slogan.
Here is a round up of the media coverage:
And it even reached the German press: https://www.yahoo.com/style/mobbing-shirts-textil-discounter-primark-der-kritik-095435383.html?src=rss
And if you don’t like bullying of any kind, best make sure that you don’t read the comments!