Memories - Rejecting an Application

Submitted by hadrian on Sat, 06/16/2018 - 16:02


No-one is born a left-winger or right-winger. Our political identity is shaped through our place in the world, the people we meet, and the interplay of these forces with our peculiar characters. Like most people alive these days, I was raised in a predominantly authoritarian environment and instilled with its values. I was taught to respect authority unquestioningly. Nevertheless, I have moved steadily towards an anti-authoritarian politics. In the series Memories, I intend to look back on smaller and larger events in my life and how they influence my political views.

A Job Application

Quite a few years ago I used to work in a computer shop. It was a fairly standard shop with a staff just under ten people divided equally over support and sales. There was one store manager and a submanager. The latter position was utterly useless, and merely gave the person holding it a false sense of superiority over the others. Next to that, the manager was basically a glorified sales-person with a few extra tasks such as ordering inventory. He wasn't a bad sort of fellow and greatly valued building a team built on mutual respect and harmony. He gave us a certain leeway to socialize on the shop floor and wasn't afraid to do the dirty work with the rest of us. All things considered, he was easily the best manager I've had. Nevertheless, when I think back to my experiences in that shop it's a seemingly innocuous event that has turned out to be the most salient concerning a round of job interviews he was preparing.

The main responsibility managers usually have is the power to hire and fire. I don't recall this manager ever actually firing people. Instead, people moved to different jobs or went (back to) college leaving a gap. At one point, this manager was going through a small stack of applications in the break-room. The Netherlands has a relatively low unemployment rate that fluctuates around five per cent. However, this still means lots of people desperate for a stable source of income. At one point, he scoffs and hands me an application letter and accompanying resume, mentioning the use of spelling and grammar. The person who had written the letter had made quite a few minor spelling and grammar "errors." At that time, I still held some rather unworthy thoughts about the importance of "proper grammar and spelling," and laughed along with him. We threw the letter and resume out, presumably never to think about it again.

I called the types of spelling and grammar "errors" of this letter minor, but in the Netherlands the specific "mistakes" this person made are generally considered almost an affront to God. In Dutch pronunciation, there is generally no distinction between words ending with a -d, -t, and -dt. These endings are usually all pronounced the same, namely a -t or unvoiced alveolar plosive, for the linguistics enthusiasts. When writing, however, a distinction is made between the spelling of these words, based on the place and existence of a subject in the sentence. A lot of Dutch people react incredibly annoyed when people incorrectly apply these rules. In the Netherlands, like in many countries, "correct grammar" is often associated with intelligence.

The problem is that the use of "correct grammar" can mean an inordinate amount of effort for people. For example dyslectic people, whose intelligence is on par with non-dyslectic people, need to put in significantly larger amounts of effort just to get things right. It's not uncommon for dyslectic people to still not be able to use "correct grammar" very well. The fact that an application letter can easily be rejected merely on the basis of such very common spelling errors serves to privilege non-dyslectic people over dyslectic people. The same is true for people with other neurological reasons for which they have a harder time learning to use "correct grammar." As such, throwing that letter away so cavalierly merely added to the constantly-strengthening system of ableism.

I can already hear some people nearly choking to retort: 'but why did he not just have someone check the spelling.' In order to find a job one often has to apply to countless places and, increasingly, these places ask for specifically tailored cover letters. I don't think an applicant can be expected to have every single cover letter reviewed by others. From experience, I know sending multiple applications per day is hard, and often solitary work. Moreover, not everyone has a strong social network to fall back on. It's unjust to privilege those with strong social networks over those who don't.

There may, of course, be various other reasons why someone doesn't use "proper grammar," ranging from differences in access to education, the language being someone's second language, and so forth. This singular act of throwing away an application because of "improper grammar" feeds into multiple systems of oppression.


Throwing away a single application letter because it didn't have the "proper grammar" may seem innocuous, until we realize it happens countless times every day. Every time a manager throws a potential employee in the bin over such minor infractions on "common decency" as a misspelling, they add to the systems of ableism. Through this act they enforce the demand that everyone falls in line, irregardless of the reasons why people don't spell the way it is ordained. Oppressive systems are mostly made up of tiny acts magnified a thousandfold. Worse, these tiny acts are often done by people who do not wish to feed systems of oppression. As such, if we want to fight oppression we must shed a light on these tiny acts, and stop them.

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