People Can Learn to Live without Descriptions

People Can Learn to Live without Descriptions

Adjectives are not always necessary. I am aware that people will sometimes describe someone as African-American or Hispanic. They do not describe someone as Caucasian. If the writing is an attempt to identify an individual, then the added characteristics would be helpful, but that often is not the case. 

I was at a meeting and there was a review of a function the group had done. The members of the group had many responsibilities creating the event. There were also others who actively participated and provided donations. I was aware that, as the event was being discussed, some of the participants were described as “older women.” I asked why that description was used. I find that we rarely describe people as being “young” unless they are children who have performed above the expectation. 

There is a stigma for older women. Once women reach middle age, their role in society changes, and it is not always easy. We are not valued for our looks. We are not valued for our vibrancy in the work force. For those with children, we often are not as participatory in the schools or extracurricular activities as our children have aged. We are no longer lusted after. 

I believe that aging is difficult for men, too. Their roles change. 

And, it is not easy for men or women. 

To focus on the age category makes it harder. And the question is what motivates the writer or speaker to use the adjective “old.”

The same can be said about one’s ethnicity or religion. Unless there is a specific correlation to the topic, why does one choose to use the description? Typically, there is an underlying judgement or prejudice involved. It is the fact that we see people that way. It is a characteristic not intrinsic to the topic, but it stands out for us. 

I know a woman with a 14-year-old son. Every time she mentions him, she cites his height, 6’1”. His height has no relevance to the conversation, but she says it with great pride and a huge smile. She has a reason to focus on this characteristic. I am aware that there are other characteristics of this boy that she cherishes, but she does not mention them when she describes him. 

She takes added pleasure in having a son so tall. I wonder why. Is there an expectation that goes with it? 

I encourage people to become aware of their own biases and judgments when they use words. I am not discouraging the recognition of meaningful and wonderful characteristics that people might have worth acknowledging. It is not easy for us all to recognize our own biases. 


Dr. Natalie Gelman is an Alameda-based therapist. Submit questions to or through her website,