Thursday, July 7, 2011

Sticks and stones only sting; bad language can kill

As children we used to defend ourselves from tormentors with this noxious little rhyme: Sticks and stones may break my bones but words will never hurt me.

What I learned in kindergarten is I’ll take the sticks and stones over the words almost every time. Words can be deadly to dreams, aspirations, and self-esteem. Just consider some of the cruel nicknames that can follow a person their entire life!

Brains over beauty

I recently read an article where the author explained how, when meeting a child, she no longer makes a reference to appearance.

For example, instead of saying, “Hello, Sam, you’re so cute!” She’ll say something like, “Hello, Sam, do you like books?”

She feels that in this way she’s helping the child to not be obsessed with their or others’ outward appearance, while positively reinforcing the value of intellectual pursuit and development.

In other words, making it about brains not beauty.

It’s a noble gesture. But I wonder if her care with words would extend into the workplace?

When language is thuggish

For example, people in companies are regularly referred to as assets, members, commodities, associates, resources, deadwood, and other less-than-human labels. Instead of being characterized as people, they are viewed as disposable, unnecessary, and unwanted things.

Could communicating the subtle message that employees are a necessary evil have a negative impact on people’s morale and loyalty to the company?

Criminals in the drug trade are afforded respect by being called lords, kingpins, and bosses. This attributes to them an air of esteem and dignity they don’t deserve – they’re mostly murdering thugs. Also, by connecting labels of power to these violent goons, impressionable young people view them with admiration, wanting to emulate them.

This is a little messed up.

Words have impact, use with care

Any time impersonal language is used, in business, in the press, or in life, the intent is to dehumanize or disrespect one group while artificially inflating another.

This happens within families when the father is referred to as the old man (or much worse), the wife is called the old bag (or much worse), and the children are called brats (or much worse), creating a hotbed of dysfunction. It’s verbal abuse and it’s wrong.

This isn’t an issue of being politically correct (PC). Being PC has its own pitfalls. In fact, some PC people will work harder to respect perceived rights of convicted murderers while labeling those who don’t agree with them in the vilest of terms. Again, it’s verbal abuse and it’s wrong.

Rather, this is a matter of representing people in communications accurately and respectfully (when respect is deserved; unrepentant violent criminals do not deserve respect).

A manger is a person. A clerk is a person. An IT worker is a person. A CEO is a person. None are assets or commodities.

When writing or talking about people, especially in the workplace, be careful and courteous when choosing your words to describe them. You are influencing your audience for better or for worse, and you are revealing your own attitude toward your colleagues.


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