​Content Triggers That May Surprise You

Published on
January 22, 2021
Time to read: 
Chocolate cake decorated with rainbow sprinkles and candles.
I chose a chocolate cake for this post because it's my favourite! Thank you to Markus Spiske from Pexels for this image.

One of the top tips shared by content creators is to write about what your audience let’s you know they want to learn more about. This week’s blog is in response to a question on LinkedIn about why the words “Happy Birthday” can be a trigger.

One of my special interests in Inclusion. I enjoy learning about all aspects of diversity, inclusion, and equity. One of the ways that I learn, is to pay attention to what people with different lived experiences share on social media. My favourite micro learning platform, as of the writing of this piece, is Twitter.  Investing time in learning how others would like to be treated, can help you act respectfully to others, particularly those who don’t have the same privileges you enjoy.

I’ve learned that there are many different words and content that can trigger people, causing them unnecessary pain and/or discomfort. People who post regularly on social media sometimes include warnings in the form of acronyms at the beginning of a post such as “CW” for “Content Warning” and “TW” for “Trigger Warning.” Some will include a word or two to let people know what type of trigger warning they’re sharing, for example “TW (suicide)” or “CW … Transphobia.”

I’ve also read different posts featuring the results of studies conducted by social scientist’s on whether or not trigger warnings are effective. Like most topics, there are at least two schools of thought on the topic!

Back when I was a junior officer in the military, the phrase “politically correct” became a part of every day language. It also became the basis for jokes, with people making comments about being “PC.” The term politically correct still exists today. This post isn’t about being politically correct. This post is about making a conscious choice to use respectful language.

Many of the people I’ve met in real life would be surprised to learn that the words “Happy Birthday” could trigger someone. Last year, I learned that these two words can cause LGBTQ+ people, Neurodivergent people, and abuse survivor’s distress.
Here’s what I’ve come to understand about why that is so. I’m not an expert, I’m simply sharing what I’ve learned. Let’s start with LGBTQ+ people, particularly Trans people. Many Trans people choose a new name and to celebrate the day that they became known by their new name. Parents can unknowingly put a lot of pressure on their offspring. When a child is born, the first thing many parents share is whether their child is a boy or a girl, as if gender was the most important thing you could know about someone! For people who are assigned male or female at birth (AMAB or AFAB) who grow up knowing that they’ve been misgendered, there can be a lot of trauma involved with memories of family celebrations. Especially if the person’s family resisted understanding who the person genuinely is.  My understanding is that Trans people may be triggered by birthday greetings which can bring up bad memories of the years when they were not living as their authentic self.

For many Neurodivergent people (people whose brains work differently than the majority of the population) the thought of being forced to celebrate milestones in situations that caused sensory distress can be triggering. What do I mean by sensory distress? A situation that is too loud, too busy, with too many people, with lights that are too bright, where they were pressured to: smile when they didn’t feel like it, to show joy in a fashion that was recognizable to Neurotypical people, and/or wear “dress up” clothing that was unbearably uncomfortable. The list goes on, and on, and on.

Survivors from abusive relationships, any type of abusive relationship, may also be triggered by birthday greetings, as they are reminded of unpleasant, and even dangerous past celebrations.

Learning that people can be triggered by birthday greetings gave me reason to reflect. I realized I could use different language, that more clearly articulated what I wish for people. In 2020, I started using "Wishing you and all your loved ones: health, joy and abundance.” I genuinely wish people to find health, joy and abundance. I choose to repeat this wish as often as possible, to help manifest it.

Those who know me well, know that remembering birthdays and anniversaries is not one of my strengths. Luckily, Facebook reminds me when family and friends have milestone dates coming up, which means I find myself sharing "Wishing you and all your loved ones: health, joy and abundance” pretty regularly. I also use this phrase as a closing sentence when signing off on some of my email, and in response to some social media posts. You can choose a different and more creative way of wishing someone well moving forward too!

I’d like to mention one other triggering word “articulate.” Ever since I can remember, I’ve considered this to be a positive word, one that describes someone’s style of communication as being worthy of recognition. I recently learned that many Black, Indigenous, and People of Colour (BIPOC) people are triggered by being described as articulate. I’ve come to understand that enough people use the word in a disparaging way, in a way that expresses surprise that a BIPOC person can communicate effectively and professionally, that many BIPOC people find the word triggering. I can only hope that anyone I’ve referred to as articulate knows that I meant it from a place of genuine respect.  It’s a word I’ve used about myself. Now that I’ve learned it can trigger people, I use the word much more sparingly.

I'd like to know If your thoughts on what I've written. If you’re curious about learning more, please let me know! If I can answer your questions I will. I’m also happy to refer you to subject matter experts, with lived experience.