Marriage 3.0

Relationships, love, and society in the post-romantic age

The Inappropriate World

Maybe we need to give "inappropriate" a rest...

Our world is awash in inappropriate-ness.

It seems to be getting more so by the year. “Inappropriate” appeared 26,200,000 times in 2011 on Google-indexed material. In 2010, it appeared a meager 9,670,000 times, and in 2007, only 1,320,000.

This growth of inappropriate as a moral adjective seems to have progressed faster than the growth of Google links generally, but I can’t be sure.

I do know that parents like me have the word “inappropriate” in the very front file folder of our brains. "Johnny, that's inappropriate. Jane, don’t be inappropriate." You hear it all the time. I say it, too.

At some point in the last decade or two, “inappropriate” migrated from the realm of manners to the realm of morals. In my youth, inappropriate behavior would mean, say, using the wrong spoon for your soup, or some other etiquette peccadillo. Cheating, lying, or yelling would constitute behaviors that went beyond the realm of inappropriate into some more vivid, ominous, richly-hued ethical domain.

Find a Therapist

Search for a mental health professional near you.

Why are we so drawn to this word with our kids as a tool of moral instruction?

For one thing, inappropriate helpfully signals disapproval, yet avoids the uncomfortable parental exercise of naming or elaborating why we think something is wrong. Meaning nothing, really, the word inappropriate can mean almost anything. Its beauty in current usage is that it can singlehandedly encompass behaviors ranging from nose-picking to harassment. It bestrides the carnival of human failure and perfidy like a Colossus.

I suspect that the appeal of inappropriate, then, comes from parental hesitancy to use more specific terms of judgment such as “good” or “bad.” We want to inculcate moral and social values, ethics and judgment, yet without… judgment. We don’t want to sound too “judge-y” or judgmental, which we all know would be inappropriate.

“Inappropriate” sort of gets us there. It’s multicultural, in the sense that “appropriate” is defined almost entirely within context: Something can only be appropriate or inappropriate only visa vis the norms of whatever context the child finds herself in. It’s an inherently relative term of disapproval.

It allows us to comment on behavior without making a statement about the behavior, per se.

Fire and brimstone religious conservative parents have more to work with, of course. They can wield concepts like "eternal damnation," "hellfire," "perdition," and they can tangibly name and skewer the "inappropriate" things that we do with lots of moral color. You're not inappropriate. No, you’re a Sinner, a Glutton, an Adulterer, a Sloth, a Coveter, Prideful, and so on.

And then there’s the problem that being inappropriate isn’t actually inherently morally wrong or, well, inappropriate. But our use of it today as a behavioral chide makes it sound as if it is.

Being openly gay or lesbian would have been “inappropriate” in its day, for example, as would have the civil rights lunch counter and bus campaigns of the 1950s in the South.

But some of these rebel subversions of the tyranny of the “appropriate” (which is seen another way, the tyranny of the majority) I’d welcome, and I’d hope to inculcate some of that rebel spirit in the cause of better ethics and morals into my own child.

The problem is that inappropriate implicitly seems to reduce morality to conformity.

I guess it wouldn’t matter all that much, except that “inappropriate” is so ubiquitous that it seems to be etching the young moral imagination.

My son now uses the term himself, and so do his friends, to describe each other’s behaviors to each other. It’s amusing to hear, for sure, but disquieting, too. You get the sense the kids don’t have much of an ethical palette to work with, or that the matter of ethics is a bit squishy for them.

I’m beginning to think we may owe it to our kids to equip their quiver with a richer, more nuanced and diverse set of moral tools than this, and one that salvages an “inappropriate” moment or two as not necessarily bad, and sometimes, in fact, downright righteous.

But whatever the case, here's to the Inappropriate people out there, in all of their discreetly whitewashed failings.

And if you’re only mildly, constructively, amusingly, and imaginatively inappropriate—and not the homicidal, nasty, bitter kind of inappropriate--then you’re my kind of people.

Pamela Haag, Ph.D., is the author of Marriage Confidential and many other books, essays, and articles—from the scholarly to the popular—on cultural trends, modern relationships and feminism. more...

Subscribe to Marriage 3.0

Current Issue

Love & Lust

Who says marriage is where desire goes to die?