“CW” & “TW” – What They Mean and How You Might Use Them

When last week’s Building Bridges Leadership email arrived in your inbox and you wondered what the “CW” meant in the preview text, you aren’t alone. Or you may have noticed a growing number of articles and social media posts using “CW” or “TW” at the beginning, followed by a brief phrase describing trauma of some kind, and still been left confused.

“CW” is shorthand for “Content Warning.” Similarly, “TW” is shorthand for “Trigger Warning.” Both are increasing in use in emails, articles, and social media posts as a way to indicate that what follows may be disturbing to some readers. Content Warnings usually indicate broader topics of concern, while Trigger Warnings indicate issues of personal trauma. The CW or TW is followed by a brief description which allows the reader to decide if this is something they are prepared to read at this point. In last week’s case, I wrote “CW: Mass racial violence.” Depending on the reader’s life experiences, past trauma, and/or emotional state at the moment of seeing that email, they might: a) choose to read it; b) save it for a time they feel more able to engage; or c) decide that this is something they’d be better off not reading at all.

When used appropriately, Content Warnings and Trigger Warnings like this give freedom to the reader to decide what’s right for them and at a time that works for them. They contribute to building a safer space for the reader. So why not use them all the time? A study published in Clinical Psychological Science suggests that in many cases Trigger Warnings do not help, and could even be harmful, but the situations included in the study are academic classes where the participants were given the warning but without the option to then disengage. So the warning acted as a more of a self-fulfilling prognosis than a point of choice. When the piece is optional for the reader, having a Content/Trigger Warning can, in fact, help someone avoid a panic attack from unexpectedly revisiting past trauma.

Given that many of us do not write articles or mass emails that would be considered optional to read, how can this be helpful this week?

This Week’s Tip:

Consider the stories and content you share with others:

  1. If you communicate with groups in speaking or writing engagements: Invite feedback from others with different life experiences before ‘going live.’ Consider that their perspective may allow them to notice things in your blind spots, and incorporate their feedback if they point to anything potentially problematic. Consider treating your use of (professional and personal) social media channels the same way. Take a look at a list of suggested CW/TW labels for guidance.
  2. If the communication isn’t ‘optional’: In a speaking engagement, refrain from sharing anything that would warrant a Content/Trigger Warning wherever possible. Content/Trigger Warnings are only helpful if given ahead of time for people to opt-out ahead of time; giving the warning during the event doesn’t give a reasonable option to opt-out. Where it is not possible to avoid sharing, ensure that you give full context to allow people to emotionally track with what you’re sharing. Take time to acknowledge the gravity of what you’re sharing, and show that you take it seriously. If you have a personal experience related to what you’re sharing, acknowledge that.
  3. Recognize that intent and impact are not the same thing. Own your impact. You may share something with the best of intentions, but if it is hurtful to others, take responsibility for that. Apologize, and learn from it.

Try this out this week and let us know how it goes – we’d love to hear from you. If you have thoughts or questions, contact us or post in our Facebook group.

Published by Ian Jackson

Ian Jackson is the founder of Building Bridges Leadership, which works with individuals, teams, and organizations to create authentic community in the workplace. He also writes children's fiction and teaches creative writing.

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