Gutters Overflow & People Aren’t Objects

After the driest December on record and a cold, sunny beginning to January, the rains have finally descended on Portland. That’s fine. Rain is important and, for me, always preferable to snow. Now there is mold growing in the backseat of my car.

The Jetta is literally rotting.

My parents’ divorce was finalized yesterday, just over two months after I found out they were separating. That’s some quick work! I learned of this fact via a text message at 2:46 a.m. — one of them is doing better than the other, clearly, and it’s not the one who knows how to send a text. This happened the same week that Dooce and Blurb, two people I’ve never met, announced to the universe that they have separated.

Sometimes it’s easier to relate to people you don’t know. They are more malleable to our imaginations, and we’re generally less aware of their shit. This explains why the Dooce/Blurb news made me feel so sad. After seven years of reading about them almost every weekday, they are still more like fictional characters than actual humans in my brain. But I know my parents. And I know what caused them to break up. Part of me thinks it could be for the best; maybe both of them will be happier in the long run.

I don’t know the secret to a happy marriage, or if there is one, but I think one key is never to treat the other person like an object or as an extension of oneself — the way I’ve done with the bloggers Dooce and Blurb.

This can be harder than it seems. Even the people we love most are always profoundly separate from us, and to forget this is a recipe for unfair expectations, disappointment and irrational anger. True intimacy can lead to a deceptive level of intuition for what the other person is thinking or feeling. But only sometimes. None of us can ever really know what is going on in another’s mind.

I know it sounds obvious, but think about this the next time somebody you love really, really upsets you because you think he or she should have anticipated how something would make you feel. The expectation that a loved one can or should mind read is an indication that we have stopped viewing him or her as a distinct person.


She, her, who or whom; but never it or that. (Photo by Hans van den Berg)

One of the most basic ways we distinguish between people and objects (and even nonhuman animals) is through language. A person is a he or a she (usually), but a plant is always an it, even if it has a sex. The Associated Press Stylebook maintains that animals should always be referred to as it; though usually, in the squishier articles about a specific dog or cat or polar bear, the copy editors bend the rules.

There is no longer any doubt that the words we use are not only a reflection of our thoughts, but actually affect the way we perceive ourselves and others. This is why there are laws against bullying and why parents say “I love you” to their children 56 times a day.

He, she and it are pronouns that are really easy for most native English speakers. We would never make the mistake of saying, “Patricia looked at himself in the mirror” — or itself, for that matter. Some people with autism and people whose first languages (e.g., Farsi) don’t have gender-specific pronouns can have trouble with this.

However, there is another set of pronouns that many people don’t understand at all — who and that. It’s interesting that people get this wrong so often, because who is almost the same as he and she, and that is first cousins with it.

This tells me that people already know the difference, they just don’t realize it.

A few days ago, the following stupid thing was trending on Twitter: #ILovePeopleThat

So dumb, even if it would have been correct, but in this state it became distractingly annoying. One of my favorite things about social networking sites is the presence of people who are even bitchier about grammar than I am. King Henry VIII (@KngHnryVIII, he of the many wives) responded: “#ILovePeopleThat know this hashtag should actually read #ILovePeopleWho

Me too, Henry!

Henry Tudor was a notorious narcissist; he treated everyone around him, especially his wives, as spiders that could be squashed (or beheaded) according to his whim. But even the person behind his fake Twitter account knows that people should never be referred to as that.

New York City Marathon 2009

So many people WHO ran the New York City Marathon.

I suspect that so many people ostracize who because they find whom confusing — when do you use one and not the other? They are the same word, it’s just that who is the subject and whom is the object. But that is always the same, so maybe it seems safer? Who/whom isn’t too complicated when you remember that you can almost always substitute she/her or he/him.

Who went to the store?”
He went to the store?”

“You went with her?”
“You went with whom?” or “Whom did you go with?”

But even if we use who when we should be using whom (I do when I’m speaking, almost always, but not when I’m writing, which has a much higher burden of correctness), it’s still better than using that when we should be using who! Why? Because humans aren’t objects.

We would never say, “You went to the store with that?” when we mean “your sister” or “your boyfriend” — not unless the intention is to be particularly demeaning, which is exactly what happens when people are treated like objects.

Portrait, Jongkhar village

He, him, who or whom; not a that, not an it.

A quick Facebook search for “people that” reveals the extent of this problem, as well an even more pervasive issue: People who create groups on Facebook are massive idiots.

Clearly, all of these people have much bigger problems than not understanding the difference between who and that. The last one is patently false, in addition to its other obvious issues; the one about “old couples” is grossly condescending; and the rest are passive aggressive, which seems to be one of the main purposes that drive people to use Facebook in the first place. Still, all of them would seem ever so slightly less dumb if that was replaced with who.

The point of this is: Don’t use that when referring to people; it’s the same as calling a person it, which is mean and dehumanizing at a very basic level.

  • “Thanks to all of my friends who came to my birthday party!”
  • “I hate people who don’t use turn signals.”
  • “Co-workers who take 15 smoke breaks per day can suck it.”
  • “Customers who don’t tip are asking for bad karma.”

Will knowing the difference between who and that guarantee a long and happy partnership? Probably not. But it can’t hurt.

Best not to risk it.

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