Thoughts on the Word “Normal”

This has come up frequently in the comments but I had yet to make a proper post about it for some reason, so I’m remedying that now: I have problems with the word “normal” in some contexts.

If you think about it, it’s pretty common: we talk about normal people, “under normal circumstances,” etc.  Some of the time it’s fine.  If you nearly get kidnapped on the way to work for example, “that wasn’t a normal day!” is probably a good descriptor.  (At least, I hope that’s not a normal day for you.  I suppose it could be in some profession?)  But when it comes to people, it tends to carry a moral implication whether we intend it to or not.

For example, I’m in a queerplatonic relationship, and it’s easy to say “as opposed to a normal relationship” out of social habit without consciously meaning anything by it, since everyone generally has one type of partnership in mind that my explanation is often the out-lier from.  But if you think about it, that has social implications – to call a romantic relationship “normal” implies that a queerplatonic one is abnormal, and while on paper that word can be a factual statement about what the majority of people do, it contains a value judgement.  A hierarchy is created where it’s more acceptable to poke fun at one type of relationship (in this example) and/or not take it seriously compared to the other.

It’s a denotation versus connotation thing.  The denotation is the factual definition you’ll find in the dictionary: if you ask Merriam-Webster, the word “normal” means conforming to a type, standard, or regular pattern : characterized by that which is considered usual, typical, or routine.”  Basically what you think the majority does.  While the connotation is the implication that people generally read into it.  (I feel like there’s an autism related conversation here, but that’s not the point at the moment, so moving on….).  When used to refer to people, using “normal” to refer to one group implies that other groups are “abnormal,” and contributes to other-ing them and seeing them as having a problem, even if your conscious intent was just to indicate what the majority is/does in a factual sense.

Other examples: saying “normal” when you actually mean “cis” regarding gender.  Writing off awful period cramps as not a big deal because “that’s normal” when just because it’s typical to experience doesn’t mean it’s not a health problem that should be investigated/treated.  Or take autism as a non-LGBTQIA+ example.  This one is a bit more complicated because it’s a bit of a community in-joke to make fun of “being normal” and stuff, but if you’re not part of the community, then using “normal” as a synonym for neurotypical in a not-being-lighthearted way can be hurtful because it reinforces society’s perception that there’s something wrong and inferior with being autistic and that we need to find a “cure.”  

In summary, basically I just want to bring to your awareness that you should think about the context when you use the word “normal.”  If you’re using it to refer to people’s identity, traits, or relationships, might it be making negative implications about certain groups that shouldn’t be made, and subtly supporting harmful normativities such as the expectation that people cis, straight, neurotypical, allo, etc. as default?  (I’m assuming that you as the audience member have good intent and aren’t knowingly trying to do this.)

Thoughts?  Leave a comment!

3 thoughts on “Thoughts on the Word “Normal””

  1. I had a random thought. Do “abnormal” and “not normal” mean the same thing? Technically yes, they do. But if I hear someone say, “That’s abnormal” vs. “That’s not normal”, somehow they invoke somewhat different interpretations. “Abnormal” has a much more negative connotation associated with it, whereas “not normal” doesn’t necessarily… it invokes more of a “not typical” feel. Statistics rather than moral judgement.

    Or idk, is that just me?

    But of course, this is not a refutation to your larger point. I think overall, it is a good idea to be mindful about what we say. And I think “typical” is a better word to use in many of the situations where we tend to use the term “normal”.

    1. Hmm, that’s a good point. I think of them as the same I think, but I’m only one person, so I could definitely see that making a difference to someone else now that I think about it.

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