What are your ‘trigger’ words?

By Michael Bugeja January 20, 2021

Like the trigger of a firearm, “trigger words” can set a person off. (Creative Commons photo via Pxhere)

If we learned anything in 2020, it is how words have consequences. They can heal or hurt. Inspire or conspire. Certain words and phrases elicit intense positive or negative emotions. These are called “trigger” words, and they influence how we view the world.

The ethical question is who or what put them in our psyches.

For more than 30 years, I have been exploring that in media ethics classes at Ohio University and Iowa State University.

Students play “The Trigger Word Game,” and you can do the same, after you know the concept and rules.

What are triggers?

These words and phrases are so powerful that they cause us to lose perspective when we most need it during job interviews, professional presentations, meetings, family gatherings and even romantic encounters. Someone may use a term, and immediately we presume they are a friend or an enemy.

Worse, others may have discerned our triggers beforehand and so can use them deceptively to manipulate us in front of others.

Often these words and phrases harken past experiences, such as “racism” or “drunk driving.” However, when proper nouns are used for triggers, such as “Black Lives Matter” or “MADD” (Mothers Against Drunk Driving), they usually are related to:

  • CULTURE (history, education, religion, etc.) pertaining to heritage, philosophy or ethnicity.
  • GOVERNMENT (political parties, officials, legislationpertaining to those holding office, embracing a political platform, or making policy.
  • MEDIA (news, social media, filmspertaining to content in various print, audio, visual and/or multimedia venues.
  • POP CULTURE (fads, hype, urban legendpertaining to sensationalized or mythic figures, such as UFO and Bigfoot.
  • SOCIAL DEBATE (legal, social, national dialoguespertaining to long-standing arguments, such as abortion rights or climate change.
  • OTHER (communities, nicknames, miscellaneouspertaining to localities, colloquialisms or uncategorized locutions.

Trigger words and phrases as proper nouns also reflect social mores, or what a society believes to be true at a specific point in time.

How to play the game

Here’s how students do it electronically:

  1. Share only proper nouns. Students send terms through the anonymous chat function on Zoom or WebEx.
  2. Compile terms. The list usually contains between 30-50 words and phrases.
  3. Vote on words. In an anonymous online poll, students respond “yes” if the term also is a trigger for them or “no” if it isn’t.
  4. List top 10 words. After all votes are tabulated, terms are rank ordered with ties listed in alphabetical order (i.e. #9 Clinton, #10 Trump).

For a snapshot of trigger words and phrases since 1995, click here.

Here are trigger words from a 2001 class at Ohio University coded shortly after the 9/11 attack:

  1. God [Culture]
  2. MLK [Culture]
  3. Afghanistan [Media]
  4. Bush [Government]
  5.  Christianity [Culture]
  6. Roe v. Wade [Social Debate]
  7. NY Fire Dept. [Media]
  8. O.J. [Pop Culture]
  9. Quad Night [Other]
  10. Cleveland Browns [Other]

In this case, Quad Night and Cleveland Browns are associated with an OU student event and an NFL team. Afghanistan was news following the 9/11 attacks. NY Fire Department also was news related to firefighters’ bravery in the attacks. Some words, like O.J., would have been coded as news in 1994; by 2001, that was classified as pop culture.

Compare that list with fall semester 2020.

  1. Donald Trump [Government]
  2. COVID-19 [Media]
  3. Nazi [Culture]
  4. George Floyd [Media]
  5. Holocaust [Culture]
  6. MAGA [Media]
  7. Trayvon Martin [Media]
  8. 801 Day [Other]
  9. BLM [Media]
  10. Kim Reynolds [Government]

For those who already have forgotten, “801 Day” concerns the August 1 video about Iowa State students ignoring the COVID-19 regulations issued by the University.

What Caused the Trigger?

Since 1995, the category of “Culture” was the chief influencer, followed by “Media,” “Government,” “Social Debate,” “Other” and “Pop Culture.”

The impact of “media” has risen over the years, peaking in 2016. Social debate showed high levels in 2012 and 2019. Pop culture and other designations remained relatively low except in 2018.

It is important to note that “Culture” — informed by history, religion, education and convention — tends to repeat the same terms year after year while media’s terms often flare and then fade.

What are your lowercase and uppercase trigger words? Make lists and consider who or what put those terms in your conscience and consciousness. If you find that media have great influence on your perception, you might want to limit your engagement with social media.

At any rate, you should analyze your own trigger word lists. You can maintain composure when someone uses those terms or view them as a warning not to categorize people prematurely in a positive or negative light.

Recognizing your trigger words is part of professional and ethical demeanor. We should listen to views of others on a number of topics before praising or condemning them in snap judgments.

Michael Bugeja Michael Bugeja is the author of “Living Media Ethics” (Routledge/Taylor & Francis) and “Interpersonal Divide in the Age of the Machine” (Oxford Univ. Press). He is a regular contributor to Iowa Capital Dispatch and is writing a series of columns on the topic of “Living Ethics.”

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