Why we have to be careful with language

I have started on a multi year journey to learn te reo māori. I was at a class last week where my kaiako (teacher) decided to break down iwi and hāpu for us. She took the three words and asked us to translate them. So we did, with the typical English words.

Iwi was Tribe. Hāpu was Sub-tribe.

Now our teacher asked us where the word ‘Tribe’ came from. Everyone was silent. She explained that the word tribe came from the Latin word ‘Tribus’ which was used to class citizens in Rome. However digging deeper into the use of the word tribe in modern times usually is perceived as lower class citizens and savages. In modern times applied usually to people of colour.

When we look at the words Iwi and Hāpu in māori culture. Iwi actually means bones, and hāpu is to be pregnant or concieved in the womb. Both poetic for the way that Māori saw themselves and how their hāpu was their connection to everything.

Looking at this with fresh eyes within the technology environment, I found a model that was labelled with ‘Tribe’. The Spotify Agile model. This is what most people hold up as the shining example of how to scale agile delivery.

I’m not here to talk about the model itself but the use of it’s naming. So in this model you have squads, which when you have many squads they form a tribe. Do you see where I’m going with this?

The Agile community talk about how the world is moving to a practitioner lead environment. Where if you’re not doing, you’re not adding value. Yet we want to name our practitioners as ‘tribes’. A term that is perceived as savage, lower class citizens. A term that I think we need to revise if we want to mature.

To embed this even more I heard someone the other day use the term and I quote:

We want teams to work together and not to go tribal

You will call them ‘tribes’ yet will not want them to go ‘tribal’. Do you see how this is wrong? Language is so powerful and I believe we need to choose our labels and language very carefully. What we say, reflects usually our own thoughts. If you choose inherently racist terms how are we to diversify teams? People of colour are unusually part of these decisions and discussions and this is why they should be. Diversity helps bring about better outcomes. Like not naming a group of your practitioners after a racist term.

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