“HAVE A SAFE TRIP!”
She was just being kind — I know that. I’d told my friend I was going to spend the week in Costa Rica, and when we finished our conversation, she said what nearly everyone says to someone about to depart on a trip.
“Have a safe trip!”
I immediately chafed. I hate it when that’s used as a farewell. But she was just being kind — so I didn’t call her out on it. I just smiled, thanked her, and walked off, feeling slightly annoyed after what had been an otherwise pleasant conversation.
Language is important
Look, let me acknowledge this up-front: this is a quibble. It’s not a hill I particularly want to die on, and if friends and family say “have a safe trip!” when I leave for my next vacation, I’m not going to tear them a new asshole. Because if I did that, I would be an insufferable turd.
But our language matters. It tells us, in subtle ways, what we really think about the world. When I was younger, I heard “have a fun trip” more frequently. I like “have a fun trip,” because it’s exactly what I want to do when I go on a trip: have fun. And when someone says, “have a fun trip,” they are basically saying they see the world as a fun place. It’s a place where you can have adventures, have new experiences, see new things, meet new people, eat new foods.
“Have a safe trip” is, likewise, a very kind thing to say. But it betrays a different worldview. It’s a worldview that says, “the world is dangerous, and I hope it doesn’t hurt you.” It still comes from a place of kindness — but it also comes from a place of fear. It comes from a place of xenophobia. The implication is that here, at home, you are safe. There, abroad, you are not.
This isn’t how we talk about other risks
Imagine for a minute, that you are sending your kid off to school. What do you say to them?
“Have a great day at school!”
“Learn something new!”
What would you be saying to them if, for a day, you said, “Have a safe day at school!”
Children are sensitive to this sort of thing — saying, “have a safe day” implies that there is a possibility that their day will not be safely navigated. It implies, so, so subtly, that their safety is at risk. If I had heard that from my mom as I left for school in the fourth grade, I would’ve felt a mild sense of dread.
“What does she know about school that I don’t?”
The thing is — school shootings have been on the rise for a couple of decades now. We understand that schools are not an ironclad safe place for kids to be. But, while the number of school shootings is shamefully high, we also understand that our kids are still not at all likely to be involved in one, and that we shouldn’t have that threat color the entire educational experience.
The understanding is that there are risks inherent in living, and that a life spent fixating on the risks instead of enjoying and exploring the wonders of the day-to-day is a life poorly spent.
The world isn’t that dangerous
Undoubtedly, there are risks when you travel. You can be mugged, robbed, pickpocketed. You can be assaulted. You can be hit by a car, your plane can crash, and you can trip on a set of stairs that doesn’t have a railing and fall and break your neck. But the proper response to these risks is to simply take precautions — read up on which neighborhoods in your destination city have higher crime rates. Be careful when you cross the road. Pay attention on strange stairways. The response isn’t “never get on a staircase.” “Never go near a car.”
The news depicts the world as a dangerous place. And that’s because it’s the nature of the news — it’s just not newsworthy to publish the headline “EVERYTHING’S STILL OKAY IN PARIS.” We may say we’d like the news to be more positive — but we wouldn’t read that article.
So we get news that emphasizes violence, war, terror, and want. It paints a scary picture. But it’s an incomplete one.
Steven Pinker, a Harvard psychologist, has looked at the numbers over the course of human history, and he says that, worldwide, violence has declined significantly in recent decades. There are parts of the world that are unsafe — Syria’s not the best place to be hanging out right now, for example — but as a whole, there has never been a safer time to be alive.
Say “have a fun trip!”
It’s incredible what a small change of words can do to our way of thinking about the world. For example, next time you’re dealing with a problem in your personal life, try changing the label “problem” to “puzzle.” See? That problem is an opportunity, now! It’s a challenge that is specifically designed to be solved! The world is your oyster!
Look: We’re all going to die. Life is a minefield, and no one (yet) has made it all the way through*. But we can choose whether to live life with a sense of dread or a sense of wonder. Have a fun trip. Don’t have a safe one. Choose adventure, not fear.
*I’m sorry if I’m the first person to break this to you. If it helps, I like to substitute the word “minefield” with “raptorfield,” which I find at least makes the idea a little sexier. What’s a raptorfield, you ask? This is a raptorfield: