Ableist Word Profile: What’s Your Damage?

Welcome to Ableist Word Profile, a (probably intermittent) series in which staffers will profile various ableist words, talk about how they are used, and talk about how to stop using them. Ableism is not feminism, so it’s important to talk about how to eradicate ableist language from our vocabularies. This post is marked 101, which means that the comments section is open to 101 questions and discussion. Please note that this post contains ableist language used for the purpose of discussion and criticism; you can get an idea from the title of the kind of ableist language which is going to be included in the discussion, and if that type of language is upsetting or triggering for you, you may want to skip this post.

“What’s your damage,” “what’s your problem,” and the accompanying “what’s your childhood trauma” are, it’s true, not words. They are phrases. But they are ableist phrases, so we are including them in our Ableist Word Profile series. All of these phrases are used when someone’s behaviour appears perplexing, erratic, or unexpected, and they are often used to silence someone by dismissing or belittling them. Fortunately, they are rather outdated and are rarely seen in common language usage, but they are still worth addressing.

These ableist phrases are interesting because they use the disability-as-objectively-bad shorthand to dismiss and marginalize people, using a form of disability which many people would argue is, in fact, harmful, which is a bit of a departure from the norm, in which all disabilities are blanketed with the “bad” status. People should not be traumatized, and the experience of trauma is not a pleasant thing. However, people who have been traumatized are not bad, and using these terms is extremely hurtful to them, whether it is applied to them or applied to someone who has not experienced trauma.

Trauma is a form of invisible disability. There’s no way to tell if someone has experienced trauma unless that person openly talks about it. As a result, when terms like “what’s your childhood trauma” are used in a group setting, there’s no way to know if you are directly hurting someone with your words.

The term “what’s your damage” uses “damage” as a standin for “trauma,” referencing the idea that people who have experienced trauma are damaged, broken, and in need of fixing. “What’s your problem” is another riff on this theme. For people who have experienced trauma and are going through therapy or are coming to terms with the need for therapy, hearing a slang term like this callously tossed out is very hurtful. It marginalizes and belittles the experience of trauma, reducing it to a slang term which is used to silence someone in discussion.

These slang terms can also be very triggering for a survivor of trauma, which is something to keep in mind; once said, it cannot be taken back, and it can cause pain for someone without the speaker being aware of it.

If the speaker knows that someone has experienced trauma and uses one of these slang terms, it is especially hurtful. It implies that a response is not valid because the person is “damaged” or has a “problem” and is therefore not worthy of respect and does not need to be taken seriously. In a literal sense, it is also asking a person with disabilities to explain a disability in personal detail, which is not something which many trauma victims want to do or should do.

“What’s your damage” and similar terms are ableist phrases which most readers should find easy to eliminate because they are so rare. But elimination requires an extra step; eliminating these phrases requires people not to come up with good replacements, but to actually think about the context in which these terms are used. They are usually used as a dismissive silencing tactic, sometimes in response to heated rhetoric.

Introspection about why one feels the need to lash out to silence someone in conversation may help people come to a better word or phrase to use, such as “I understand that this conversation is upsetting, do we need to take a break” or “I respect your point of view, but I disagree” or “I think that this conversation is becoming heated and it’s time to take a step back and regroup.”

About s.e. smith

s.e. smith is a recalcitrant, grumpy person with disabilities who enjoys riling people up, talking about language, tearing apart poor science reporting, and chasing cats around the house with squeaky mice in hand. Ou personal website can be found at this ain't livin'.

25 thoughts on “Ableist Word Profile: What’s Your Damage?

  1. Wow. Every time I think: “I hope someone covers __,” you (all) do! How awesome is that?

    I’m so glad you covered these, even if their usage is a little older. In particular, I seem to hear “What’s your damage?” exclusively in ’80s movies like Heathers.. Though I’ve heard (and, sadly, used) “What’s your problem?” much more recently. As in, within the last 11 years. But even if these particular words are less common, the ableist ideas behind them are still around. Like the idea that the feelings/thoughts/opinions of someone who’s experienced trauma are irrelevant, or that they just need to “deal with” or “get over” it. (I see parallels with the ways “hysterical” is used as a silencing technique, too).

    Also, I have a form of brain damage. Not sure if “What’s your damage?” ever consciously meant brain injury, but that’s what I always thought of when I heard it. (Until this post, I never thought of it as referring to emotional trauma. Ableism fail on my part).
    .-= Tera´s last blog ..New blog of awesomeness =-.

  2. Oh, and you bring up a really good point with brain damage; something I didn’t think of when I was writing this, and an equally valid point! There’s a whole different layer there, with the implication that people who don’t think like you do/don’t agree with you must have sustained some sort of brain injury to think that way.

  3. My friend used to ask her 3-year-old, whenever the child was throwing a tantrum, “What’s your malfunction?!”

  4. ‘Like the idea that the feelings/thoughts/opinions of someone who’s experienced trauma are irrelevant, or that they just need to “deal with” or “get over” it. (I see parallels with the ways “hysterical” is used as a silencing technique, too).’

    Repeated for emphasis.

  5. First, I love this blog! Thank you for creating it, it has been very insightful for me.

    I do have a 101 question though.

    I understand what you are saying with phrases such as “What’s your damage” and “what’s your childhood trauma.” I’m not sure that I get it with phrases such as “what’s your problem.”

    I’m trying to eliminate ableist language from my use, but I don’t really understand what is ableist about asking “what’s your problem.” I usually use it in a situation where someone is upset over something that they have no reason to be upset about. For example, if someone gets up in arms about same-sex marriage, I might ask “what’s your problem with GLB people?”.

    I’m not asking it to suggest that people against same-sex marriage aren’t neurotypical. What I’m asking is “what is it about GLB people that’s so bad, that it creates problems for you?”

    basically I’m asking “how does this effect you?”

    I could see how someone who isn’t neurotypical might interpret the question differently, as if I was attacking their difference or disability. Since I can’t always know whether someone is neurotypical or not, that’s reason enough for me to change my language. It’s easier for me to change my language than for someone else to be triggered by it.

    But I would like to understand better as well.

  6. Oh yikes, I’ve been using “what’s your damage?” for years, I always thought “what’s your problem?” sounded kind of rude even without taking the ablism into account. Thanks for covering this!

  7. That’s a great question, Elana, and it’s one which I think relates a lot to tone; “what’s your problem” could be taken in a number of different ways. I’m reading it here in the sense of “what is wrong with your brain/the way you think.” In the examples you gave, I don’t find the second phrasing problematic “…that it creates problems for you.” The first phrasing…depends on tone? I think it’s a bit of a slippery slope, and I would like to hear from other readers, because I definitely hear some ableism in some uses of “what’s your problem?”

  8. Hi, Elana,

    I’m not sure if the “What’s your problem with __?” construction is ableist or not. But a huge difference I see between that and “What’s your problem?” full-stop is that the “with” construction leaves room for the other person to answer. (In fact, I think the person asking “What’s your problem with __?” no matter how snarkily, usually *wants* an answer). “What’s your problem?” by contrast, shuts down discussion entirely. It’s a way of saying: “There is something wrong with you, and I’m not gonna talk to you anymore.” To me, it’s like the (big) difference between asking “What’s wrong?” and “What’s wrong *with you?*”

    That’s my take on it. Perhaps other people have different opinions.
    .-= Tera´s last blog ..New blog of awesomeness =-.

  9. I really like your suggestions for calming a discussion down instead of lashing out.
    I would like to know what you think are good substitutes when the phrases are used in a defensive situation. For example, if someone keeps personally attacking me, I might have had enough and yell “what the hell is wrong with you/ what the hell is your problem”. What would be a better thing to say? ( is “what is wrong with you” considered abelist?)

    This is such a helpfull series of posts, they did’t cover questions like these in English class.

  10. Being in a defensive situation is rough when emotions are running high. What I would like to claim that I do every time is say something like “this conversation is not productive, I need to leave and cool down,” or “I appreciate that you feel strongly about this, but we need to take a break,” or “what you are saying is hurting me, and I need to disengage right now.” All of these bring the focus back to the key issue, which is that the conversation is not going well.

  11. I’m another person who sees a difference between “what’s your problem” and “what’s your damage/trama/etc” (on which I am in full agreement with the above post). Even full-stop (without the “…with ____”), it seems different.

    It comes down to how it can be answered, I think. “What’s your damage?” is never answerable with anything useful (other than perhaps a bucket full of expletives), but “What’s your problem?” can be answered with “This damn phone isn’t working!” or “I haven’t eaten anything all day!” or “you’re being an ableist douchebag and you don’t even recognize it!”

    Problems are something I have, on a regular basis, and sometimes a problem from another area DOES make me act irrationally or excessively in a completely unrelated area. (For example, I might be exploding at my child because my problem is my neck is killing me and I desperately need to see a massage therapist — to pull an example from, erm, completely random! yea… random… not today… uh uh…) Or, flip-side, I can be acting completely rationally and appropriately, and my “problem” is the douchebaggery of the person asking (in that they don’t recognize their part in my reaction), which is less useful, but it’s still true that I do, in fact, have a problem.

    It can still definitely be rude, and insulting, and I’m willing to accede to group opinion if the consensus is it’s ultimately ableist, but it really doesn’t seem that way to me.
    .-= Arwyn´s last blog ..Why I say I’m OK =-.

  12. Maybe, the distinction for me, is between “what is the problem” and “what is your problem.” I find “what is the problem” perfectly acceptable; someone’s having some kind of problem, you’re asking what it is, and, key, you are asking because you want an answer, not because you want to shut them down. Whereas, with “what is your problem” carries a snide and dismissive tone to my (probably oversensitive) ears; since it is so often used to silence, and because it seems, to me, to reference a disability issue, with the added idea that people with disabilities don’t have emotions/opinions/etc that are worthy of attention and respect. I’ve never been asked “what’s your problem” by anyone who actually wants me to answer that question.

  13. Hm. I do use ‘what’s your problem’ on its own, but in a context where ‘with me/this?’ is implied. I think I can see how it could be used in a way that’s ableist, however, and I’d say it’s a combination of context and tone. Like how ‘what are your issues?’ could mean very different things. :/

    I’d like to throw out ‘what’s wrong with you?’ as another commonly used phrase that probably deserves a mention in this particular post as not okay. 🙁

  14. Whups, somebody already mentioned it anyway. That’ll teach me for not refreshing the page!

    I’d also point out that there are times where it IS being used to shut someone down in a context I’m personally comfortable with -to use the majority of the personal examples of my own use of the phrase, its been in instances where someone is picking at small things you say, or otherwise being consistently passive-aggressive, and it serves to drag attention forcibly to the fact that they’re acting on a personal issue with you rather than legitimate issues with what you’re saying.

    I’m certainly not trying to say it’s polite, but I don’t personally think politeness is always necessary.

  15. Interesting takedown of the phrases! I’d never thought of “What’s your problem?” in that context, and never heard the other two. (Besides in french class. I can remember learning “Quelle domage?”)

    I’d parse “What’s your problem with ?” as completely different than just “What’s your problem?”. The latter is accusatory and silencing and the former is an actual question.
    .-= Shiyiya´s last blog ..Lost =-.

  16. I think the easiest way to explain the problem with “What’s your problem?” is to rephrase it the same way that all three phrases can be rephrased:

    “What is wrong with you?”

    If there genuinely seems to be something that is upsetting someone, or some kind of disconnect or miscommunication is going on that you can’t put your finger on but someone else is upset, I think “What’s bothering you?” or “What’s the matter?” are both less ableist and less accusatory. Ableism aside, I don’t think people very often say “What’s your problem?” because they’re in a mind to solve anything.

  17. “My friend used to ask her 3-year-old, whenever the child was throwing a tantrum, “What’s your malfunction?!””

    Ah yes, the Full Metal Jacket school of parenting.

  18. Reading this just brought back a very intense memory….about 1 year post injury, I was struggling with a very complex aerobics routine that I just could not follow.

    The instructor *meant* to be encouraging when she said “Come on! You can do this! It’s not like you’re brain-damaged or anything!”

    I wish I had handled it better, but I basically said “Actually, I AM brain-damaged, you spandex-clad #$#!”, flipped her the bird, and stomped out of class.

    That was almost 17 years ago, and it still stings. And I have never set foot in a gym class since, for fear of the same thing happening. Sigh.
    .-= bug_girl´s last blog ..Yay! Wait…oh. =-.

  19. I’ve never heard someone say “What’s your damage,” but I have heard “What’s THE damage,” in reference to paying a bill. As in, what’s the damage to my bank account? Thoughts on this?

  20. I absolutely do not use the damage/trauma language, because it is abundantly clear that it is ableist.

    But the idea that “what’s your problem” is ableist is, frankly, imo, silly. It might be rude.

    But there is an important difference between being rude and being ableist and I don’t think any productive gain can be made from confusing the two.

  21. Carrie, we actually had a very lengthy discussion about this in comments, as you can see above; after taking a mosey through there, perhaps you’ll have a better idea of why some people regard “what’s your problem” as ableist.

  22. I like this – what’s your problem? (Why don’t you find out *ist jokes funny? What’s your problem?)

    vs

    Seeing a friend upset and asking, “Hey, what’s the problem/trouble? What’s going on?”

    One is engaging and sympathetic, the other is dismissive and most likely cruel.

  23. As we discussed above, there’s a significant difference between “what is the problem with…” or “I see that you seem to be having a problem…” etc.

    But “what’s your problem” is used, most commonly, in a very dismissive way and it does carry some ableist overtones, at least to my neuroatypical brain. To me it sounds like “there’s obviously a problem with you if you do not think the way I do.” I read “what’s your problem” and “what’s your damage” in the same way. Some of the people upthread do too. Some don’t.

    And that’s fine. As we’ve said over and over again, people are not obligated to agree with everything in this series. But it’s helpful when they disagree with something more substantive than “I disagree” and actually articulate the points of their disagreement more thoroughly, because often people find that when they articulate why they feel so resistant, they find out something interesting.

  24. Also gonna toss in a great big ‘thank you’ for this AWP series. As both someone trying to be as respectful as possible to those around me, and someone with an interest in the backgrounds of words and language, this series is a double hit of awesome to me. Even if I’m about six months late to the party. ^_^

    As for the discussion… I think in most cases like these, I’d moreso lean towards “What’s up?”, especially with a friend. It’s less accusatory, more informal (and likely to keep things friendlier) and gives room for more general answers. I agree, “What’s your damage?” is definitely ableist, and at very least shutting-down; typically, I think it’s mostly associated with people trying to be ‘edgy’ and cool.

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