John McCaffrey
4 min readDec 30, 2022

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I Don’t Know Who Needs to Hear This…The Danger of Distancing Language

Not too long ago, I did something I haven’t done in a long while: I went to the movies. It was special, and strange, after being so long away from a cinema, perhaps a year before the pandemic, and throughout the pandemic, a period many will attest seems impossible to measure, as if we have lived through an eternal blur.

But I was keen on seeing a new film, The Banshees of Inisherin, a melancholic masterpiece set in 1923 Ireland. Not to give away the story, but the tension begins with the fracturing of a long friendship between two men (played by Colin Farrell and Brendan Gleeson). Gleeson’s character, Colm, doesn’t want to be best buddies any longer with Farrell’s Padraic. After much prodding from Padraic about why, Colm finally, and flatly, says: “Because I don’t like you anymore.”

The pain on the face of Padraic upon receiving this awful truth is jarring and wrenching to watch. But to me, it is also empowering, even liberating to hear (albeit from an actor’s mouth) someone be so blunt, so decisive, and so honest in expressing a difficult feeling. And while hurtful, and not nice, as the movie goes on to explore in great depth, the admission is even more astonishing, and somewhat surreal, when imposed on the minds of modern viewers. For I believe we are being conditioned to hold back, or to lace with subterfuge, what we really think. And I understand all too well the reasons behind such withholding. Particularly on social media, the real and existing threat of being ridiculed, labeled, bullied, censored, and/or having livelihoods and futures threatened by a culture thirsting to cancel and begging to boycott, is more than enough to deaden debate and obfuscate openness.

But the human need to share opinions, even if they go against the proverbial grain, is primal. And good for us, individually and collectively. As stated in the journal Exploring Your Mind (https://exploringyourmind.com/voicing-your-opinion-good-mental-health/),

“Not agreeing with others or thinking differently stresses us out due to the fact that we’re social beings who feel comfortable when we belong to a group. That’s why voicing our opinion can sometimes be scary. We don’t want to be rejected, offend anyone, nor encourage instability in our environment. However, if we abstain from expressing our personal opinion out of fear that people will reject us or exclude us, we’ll stray away from who we really are. Similarly, this can lead to the stagnation of a group or a community. A group can’t evolve if all its members agree all the time.”

And so, when faced with the pull to connect, versus the common sense to be wary of connecting, we often use “distancing language” to voice something to someone that might be hard for them to hear, or where we are concerned about recrimination and repercussion. A common technique for such consequence avoidance is the change of pronouns (“I drove my car into the lake.” vs. “The car rolled into the lake.”) Or the addition of an unnecessary word (“We didn’t see her.” vs. We didn’t really see her.” )

Online, a good example is the post that begins: “I don’t know who needs to hear this…” As Jason Kurtz, a top psychoanalyst in New York City, an award-winning playwright, and the author of the inspirational memoir, Follow The Joy, explains:

“This is a form of distancing language. People do, obviously, know who they are addressing, and also who they want to impress, but also know that it’s not acceptable to be so arrogant as to think that you are morally superior to others — even though they do feel that way and it intoxicates them.

I think it’s similar to Bill Clinton’s language when he spoke to the American people about Monica Lewinsky. He stated that “I did not have sex with that woman.” He did not mention her by name, as a way of trying to emotionally distance himself from her. He could only lie in this way by verbally distancing himself from her name. The people who post, as you suggest, do so probably because they can’t allow themselves to directly be so transparent in their intent, they have to distance themselves slightly in order to be able to make the statement they want to make.”

So what, you might ask? Who cares if people use distancing language to take pressure off themselves? What’s the big deal if someone making an online statement about politics or culture, sports or entertainment, slips in a bit of linguistic deception to deflect responsibility?

Well, I care. I think it’s a big deal. It takes fortitude to voice one’s truth, particularly on social media. But by limiting ownership of one’s truth is to limit the opportunity for personal growth, the chance to lean into a life without fear, and to lead by example. Courage is contagious, and one person’s honesty, their willingness to be vulnerable, makes room for more to join this space.

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John McCaffrey

John McCaffrey is a writer and a professor at The Rochester Institute of Technology. jamccaffrey.com