Is There A Difference Between “Calling In” And “Calling Out”?

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by Ashley Austrew

When you hear the phrases calling out and calling in, you probably picture someone taking a sick day at their job. And, there’s a whole lot of debate about which phrase you use when doing that. Twitter, go!

Aside from those regional debates, these two phrases have very different meanings in the world of social justice. On social media, for instance, we often call out people for racism, homophobia, and other acts of bigotry. It can even feel like that’s what social media was made for in the first place.

But, in March 2019, New York congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez tweeted a message to her progressive followers about the importance of calling in—and introduced many of us to a new term, and tactic, in culture and politics.

First, what is calling in?

Call in has long been a phrasal verb in English. In the 1480s, call in meant “to summon (someone) for help” or “to enlist (someone) into service.” In the 1570s, call in referred to making a brief visit to places such as a person’s house.

Fast forward to the 19th and 20th centuries, and new technologies like the telephone, radio, and television provided new senses of call in, such as calling in to a radio or television show to make comments to or ask questions of a host or guest. This sense is recorded as early as the 1940s, around the same time we see evidence for calling in sick, as in “I’m calling in sick to work day because I have the flu.”

In social justice circles, calling in refers to “the act of checking your peers and getting them to change problematic behavior by explaining their misstep with compassion and patience.” Picture a huddle where you bring someone in and talk about the game plan to get on the same page.

As author and activist Ngọc Loan Trần explained for the Black Girl Dangerous (BGD) blog in 2013, calling in can be a useful way of addressing bigotry and oppressive behavior among people you know, trust, and want to continue associating with, as when addressing a friend who made a casually racist remark. The phrase appears to emerge around this time in deliberate distinction to another tactic: calling out.

OK, then what is calling out?

Calling out is a more familiar—and, perhaps, more popular and easier—way of addressing socially problematic language and behavior, especially online. When you call someone out, you “issue a direct challenge to something they’ve said or done, usually in public and with the intent of exposing the person’s wrongdoing to others.”

Unlike calling incalling out does not generally feature patient, empathetic dialogue with a trusted person. It’s more like what happens regularly on Twitter, typically to public figures or organizations. In March 2019, many people online called out media outlets for Islamophobia, for instance, due to their perceived hesitance to label the mass shootings at two mosques in Christchurch, New Zealand as acts of terrorism.

Like call in,
call out
is a phrasal verb recorded since at least the late 1400s, with a sense of “summoning people into some service, as during an emergency.” In the 1700s, call out took on the meaning of “challenging someone to a fight, like a duel.” To call out, as in “to challenge someone on bad language and behavior,” is found by the 1980s, with a similar construction, call on, evidenced much earlier in the 1940s.

(And, oh, to call out sick emerges by the 1970s. People who say out for this notification may have the image of being out of school or the office, while people who say in may be thinking of how people phone in to their place of employment, etc. The debate continues …)

We live in a call-out culture

Calling people out appears to have especially spread thanks to social media, which allows people to amplify their message and mobilize for change like never before. Black Lives Matter, fighting police violence against black people, and the Me Too Movement, fighting sexual violence against women, largely took off as hashtag campaigns calling out pernicious people and institutions.

WATCH: #MeToo And Other Hashtags That Inspired A Movement

While call-out culture, as it has become called, can speak truth to power, it can have a darker side. The impersonal and anonymous nature of social media can turn call-outs into malicious attacks, sometimes based on false information.

Call-outs can also be performative, done more so to signal one’s virtues as opposed to enacting meaningful change. And, when call-outs go viral, they can encourage dog-piling, when people gang up on a target.

So, which is better for addressing problematic behavior: calling in or calling out?

It’s essential to denounce bigotry in all its forms, and calling people out is one strategy. Calling out can be powerful at drawing attention to problematic behavior, particularly among high-profile individuals, businesses, or institutions as well as in more immediately dangerous situations.

Calling in, as Ocasio-Cortez noted in her tweet, is vital to educating people on social-justice issues. That’s because calling in is personal and is especially effective among friends and familiars where there is already mutual trust and understanding.

Calling in involves taking people aside–like your family, coworkers, or even fellow activists–and addressing them in a patient, caring, and human way to help them grow. As Katelyn Burns observed for Everyday Feminism in 2017: “This approach allows people to learn without feeling singled out or publicly embarrassed.”

Of course, the act of calling in demands a lot of emotional labor. It’s important to remember that those who are being oppressed have a right to their anger and are under no obligation to do the work of educating the people participating in their oppression. Calling in is a tool for teaching others in safe situations, and it can be particularly useful if you are someone from a privileged group who can do the work of calling in others who share your privilege and challenging their problematic beliefs.

So, calling in and calling out can both be valuable tools for fighting bigotry and injustice. After all, as Ngọc Loan Trần insightfully wrote, “it’s possible to have multiple tools, strategies, and methods existing simultaneously.”

The important thing is not to be silent. Whether calling in or out, we’ve got to speak up.


Ashley Austrew is a freelance writer from Omaha, Nebraska. Her work has been published at Cosmopolitan, Scary Mommy, Scholastic, and other outlets.

For more by Ashley, read: “Why Can’t Women Swear?” | “Is It Time For All Couples To Use The Term “Partner”? | “Is “Crude” The Right Word To Use To Describe Someone’s Language?” | “What Does It Mean To Be Electable?” | “Has The Word ‘Expert’ Lost Its Meaning In 2019?” | “Does ‘Spark Joy’ Mean The Same Thing In English And Japanese?”

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