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Word choice that irritates me: Sell yourself

Warning: This essay is likely to be a short, somewhat rant-like reflection. Some of you will also find it to be politically correct [1] mumbo jumbo. I don’t really care.

It’s the time of year that students are thinking about jobs and internships [2]. And, as students prepare résumés and cover letters or get ready for interviews they say things like I need to sell myself. I absolutely, positively, hate that phrase. Let’s consider some reasons why.

The term sell is normally reserved for physical objects. Using it for human beings (even ourselves) means that we’re just treating ourselves like merchandise. In an increasingly corporate world, in which humans are often treated as little more than disposable cogs [3], we need to resist any attempt to depersonalize persons.

Worse yet, our country has a shameful history that involves the sale of people. Any phrases that harkens back to that history should be treated as embarrassing and awful, and not as just something we say.

For women (and for men) the term sell potentially has other connotations. It’s a small step from self yourself to sell your body and all that implies [4,5].

Why do we use the phrase, with its acceptance of a corporate, material culture, and its echoes of slavery and prostitution? I have no clue. It’s probably just one of those things that almost no one thinks about. But that doesn’t make it okay.

So, dear reader, I ask that the next time you hear someone use the phrase sell yourself, please ask that person to consider just what they are saying. You might also encourage them to consider alternative phrases: promote yourself (still a little market oriented), help others discover your value (long; value also feels a bit market oriented), show your strengths, or some better phrase than I can elicit from my befuddled brain.

Strangely enough, no particular event motivated this essay. It has just been on my list of things I want to write about, and it felt like the right thing to write tonight.

[1] politically correct. adj. slang. Understanding that words carry weight and can therefore cause harm.

[2] These days, it feels like it is always the time of year that students are thinking about jobs and internships.

[3] Unfortunately corporate world and disposable cogs are on my mind right now because of how I’m seeing my institution treat some people. I wish I knew what I could do about it.

[4] I realize that there are sex-positive theories that suggest that prostitution can be a positive choice for some people, and that we should not judge. But way too much of the sex trade is neither voluntary, nor empowering, nor sex positive.

[5] I did a quick Google search of Sell Yourself, and one of the firs things to come up was an article at Forbes that includes the sentence I’ve spent a fair amount of my career hanging around pimps, prostitutes, and porn stars, and, boy, do they know how to sell themselves.

Original version 2016-10-08.

Version 1.0.1 of 2017-05-28.