Michigan State Training: Avoid Trigger Words Like 'But' and 'I Apologize'

As students went back to school at Michigan State University, those who wanted to make an extra buck working on campus were in for a rude awakening. At a mandatory student employee training, administrators told them to avoid words like "but" and phrases like "no problem" and "I apologize." According to the training, these words and phrases are "triggers" that could make people uncomfortable.

"Raise your hand if you’ve ever said 'no problem.' Did you ever think that was a trigger?" MSU Facilities Manager Sheena Ballbach asked student employees, according to Campus Reform. "I say this all the time and never thought that this could be a trigger word. But if I’m saying 'no problem,' that’s leading a customer to believe that they could be a problem or they could be an inconvenience to you and we’re just assuring them that they’re not."

The training featured a presentation with a page on "triggers" and "calmers." According to that page, the trigger phrase "I apologize..." should be replaced with the calmer phrase, "I am truly sorry..." The trigger phrase "I don't know..." should be replaced with the calmer phrase, "I'll find out & get back to you..." The trigger phrase "It's our policy..." should be replaced with the calmer phrase 'Here's what we can do..."

Taking a page out of Chick-fil-A's book, the presentation suggested, "You're welcome, it was my pleasure..." to replace "No problem..."

With all seriousness, the presentation suggested that the trigger phrase "But..." should be replaced with the calmer phrase "And..."

Those poor student employees had no idea the kind of Orwellian nightmare they were entering. Just imagine going one day without using the word "but," and choosing to say "and" instead. This mandatory training is directing students to alter their thinking — to never use a contrasting conjunction but always use a connecting conjunction.

As National Review's Kat Timpf pointed out, this completely ignores what words actually mean. The phrase "no problem" clearly makes the point that the customer is not a problem. As difficult as it would be to avoid using "but" all day, using the word "and" instead would not really change the meaning of most sentences. Timpf used the example, "I love you, but I don't want to be with you anymore." Is it any less hurtful to say, "I love you, and I don't want to be with you anymore?" The point is the meaning of the sentence, not the word "but."

From the Campus Reform report, it seems the administrators had too much authority for the students to ask the simple question, "Why, in the name of all that is holy, do you want us to avoid using the word 'but'?!" Somehow, the question never came up.

The idea of "misgendering," did come up, however.

Ballbach asked the students, "How many of you were ever raised to say, 'yes sir' or 'yes ma'am?' Not everybody identifies like 'sir' or 'ma'am. I would like to start seeing a culture around MSU where we say... 'they,' not 'his' or 'hers.'"

The war on the English language continues apace! First, MSU outlawed a contrasting conjunction. Then the school outlawed singular gendered possessive pronouns. Everything must be plural, even when referring to a singular person whose "gender identity" is obvious to everyone.

Eduardo Olivo, MSU's assistant director of diversity, warned that bias incidents had spiked in the past two years, based on data from the MSU Resident Housing Association (RSA), the dorm student government.

RSA launched its own microaggression campaign, which likely helps explain why "bias incidents" have increased. For those blissfully ignorant of what a microaggression is, the word refers to the idea that any statement that could be considered offensive, no matter how innocently meant, is an act of aggression, especially against racial minorities, LGBT people, women, et cetera. Some previous microaggressions include "America is a land of opportunity" and "where do you come from?" — which can be interpreted as "poor people are responsible for their poverty" and "you look like an immigrant."

When students are told to interpret innocent words and phrases as subtle racial, sexist, or homophobic attacks, they are more likely to report such "bias incidents," and an increase in "bias incidents" justifies more Orwellian restrictions on speech. As students learn that words like "but" can be triggering, their ears start to prick up at the use of a completely innocent word, and the cycle repeats itself.

In fact, warnings about microaggressions actually create unhealthy habits that can cause students psychological damage.

As Jonathan Haidt and Greg Lukianoff explained in their Atlantic essay that became a book — The Coddling of the American Mind — teaching kids to read malice and oppression into unintentional insults involves training them to magnify unimportant episodes and label language and people dangerous.

"The recent collegiate trend of uncovering allegedly racist, sexist, classist, or otherwise discriminatory microaggressions doesn’t incidentally teach students to focus on small or accidental slights. Its purpose is to get students to focus on them and then relabel the people who have made such remarks as aggressors," Haidt and Lukianoff wrote.

"What are we doing to our students if we encourage them to develop extra-thin skin in the years just before they leave the cocoon of adult protection and enter the workforce? Would they not be better prepared to flourish if we taught them to question their own emotional reactions, and to give people the benefit of the doubt?" the authors asked.

This kind of thinking leads students to "catastrophize," reading the worst possible intentions into everyday language.

Before the training, if a student had asked for beef at Chick-fil-A and the employee had said, "I apologize, it's no problem but it's our policy to sell chicken, instead," that student wouldn't have blinked an eyelash. Now, he or she has been taught to take that response as an attack — filled with no fewer than four "trigger" phrases!

Follow Tyler O'Neil, the author of this article, on Twitter at @Tyler2ONeil.