Being Politically Correct is Harder than it Seems

It’s an epidemic. The seemingly innocuous statements executives make on the stage or in social media get blown to the sky by outraged listeners, and press and reputation nightmares are born.

For example, Brent Musburger, one of the most widely recognized voices in sports, was raked over the proverbial coals last year for remarking during a close-up shot of Miss Alabama (a friend of the Atlanta team’s quarterback) how quarterbacks seem to “get all the good-looking women.” Mayhem ensued.

Phil Mickelson, golf legend, remarked that he was thinking of moving away from California due the “increasingly heavy tax burden there.”  The comment created a firestorm, as Mickelson is obviously a person of means. (But when Tiger Woods was asked about the remarks he shrugged in empathy, acknowledging that he, himself, had already moved to a lower tax state.)

Sports broadcaster Brent Musburger has been criticized for political incorrectness (Image courtesy of Forbes.com)
Sports broadcaster Brent Musburger has been criticized for political incorrectness (Image courtesy of Forbes.com)

Forbes contributor Dr. Mark W. Fredrickson pegs the political correctness war as partisanship, writ large: “As the left aggressively pursues its agenda, they are eager to denounce, discredit, hound, harass, vilify, abuse, and make life difficult for anyone who dares to contradict their catechism,” he says.

But is political correctness really so simple? And how far should organizations and executives go in their attempts to never offend?

 


Sports teams are being renamed to avoid offending Native American tribes. A U.S. university has reclassified its freshman class as “first-year students” to avoid any possibilities of affiliation with gender. Some schools are referring to Easter Eggs as “Springtime spheres” and are eliminating Halloween altogether for fear of the possible suggestion of underlying religious themes.

One of the latest PC frenzies surrounds a recent video “The Best First Date” about a father and his toddler age daughter going on a daddy daughter date. It’s a sweet and touching video to many, but a surprising number of viewers are flaming the segment as disgusting and creepy, and even calling the father a pedophile and abuser (as he sips from a Disney princess mug and enjoys a PB sandwich with his little girl).

Says my friend and frequent collaborator, integrity expert Dr. David Gruder: “What does it say about our society that the media would even suggest that people should think this is creepy? To me it says that people have not learned to recognize the underlying intentions behind behaviors. Their focus is only on whether they think a behavior should be labeled as right or wrong.”

Speaker, author, and business psychologist Dr. David Gruder (Image courtesy of DrGruder.com)
Speaker, author, and business psychologist Dr. David Gruder (Image courtesy of DrGruder.com)

“If there were even an ounce of sexual energy coming from the dad or his little girl in this video I believe virtually anyone who watched would be repulsed, and rightly so,” he continues. “But this is a father embodying fatherly love in a way that’s developmentally appropriate (through play). He is demonstrating for his daughter the loving kindness she should require of those she lets close to her, as healthy parenting.”

“That so many can’t distinguish between intentions that express parenting and those that express perpetration is a painful testament to how emotionally illiterate the ‘political correctness’ movement has become,” Gruder concludes. (As an aside he notes that conservatives are as guilty of PC character bashing as liberals in his estimation and he finds the activity equally reprehensible on either side of the scale.)


In an essay from the Conflict Information Consortium called “Escalation Limiting Language,” author Jennifer Akin points to the ways language and communication can purposely quell a PC conflict or can further inflame it. “A wrong word or a misconstrued meaning in the midst of a conflict is like gasoline on a flame,” she observes.  In the category of “no truer words were ever spoken” she notes “An immense amount of embarrassment and pain could probably be avoided if everyone paused before speaking, heeding the advice to ‘think before we speak’.”

Amen to that statement.

Some behavior is easy to classify as “looking for trouble.” For example, Utah was scandalized about a decade ago by the story of a conservative 41-year-old bank CFO who was emerging after hours in leather pants and a silver Porsche with the license plate “Ecstasy” to throw parties behind the security gates of his palatial residence. The story ended in arrest for methamphetamine possession and child endangerment when a frantic 911 call revealed his 19-year-old girlfriend naked and passed out in his bed during a party in which his 15-year-old daughter was also found passed out in the home.

It was a story that seemed to beg for bad press. Yet some blamed the media for inflaming the situation further, for bad acts such as including the exec’s middle name “Moroni” in coverage (a name that is prominent in Mormon culture and appeared to gratuitously exaggerate the “Jekyll and Hyde” story still more.) The press insisted the inclusion of middle names was standard practice. Regardless, it was a terrible story by anyone’s terms that became a PR nightmare for the organization as well as for the executive himself.

 There are some executives, in the way they express themselves, who are clearly looking for fights (just as there are an increasing number of PC vigilantes who are loaded for battle).

We can learn to speak more carefully. In Akin’s essay, she notes that in some cases, all an angry listener is looking for is to feel that they’ve been properly heard.


Author Suzette Elgin (The Gentle Art of Verbal Self-Defense at Work) notes in Akin’s article that offense is in the ear of the hearer, and that we can learn to be more sensitive to what the words we choose may mean to others. For example, some people may be angered to be referred to as “Oriental” instead of “Asian.” Some words are inherently accusatory, such as “spendthrift” and “profligate” instead of merely pointing to the black and white fact of an unbalanced budget.

Elgin also notes that how a message is received by its listener depends on more than semantics. It depends on expression, intonation and body language as well. As an example, how many ways can you interpret the answer to the question “How are you?” when a person responds with “Fine”? That single word could express anything ranging from happiness to boredom to anger, depending on the intonation involved.

“English is a language in which hostilities and abuse are carried primarily by the melodies that go with the words, rather than by the words themselves,” Elgin says.

But no matter how gentile and tactful the speaker, there is no avoiding the fact that in public communications, some listeners will take offense. A few will even be outraged (they’re the folks psychologists jokingly refer to as “pi**ed off waiting to happen”—if you offered them a $20 bill they’d assume you’re implying they’re incapable of paying their own bills.)

Says Gruder, “The attempt to create political correctness rules and to legislate behavior at work and in society is an ineffective attempt at symptom control. It is an unsustainable substitution for properly equipping people with the skills to align what they know with their frame of heart and with the actions they take.”


Well said.

Furthermore, well-meaning people can occasionally trip. For example, the job candidate who blurts out “this place seems like a ghetto,” then realizes that one of the interviewing team is white, one is black, and she has likely offended them both can simply say, “I am sorry.  I made a poor choice of words, and I failed to express what I mean.” Then try the statement again.

In summary, what can business communicators do about the PC vigilantes? We can 1) think before we speak, 2) consciously choose words and manners that encourage alignment instead of escalating a fight, and 3) genuinely listen and hear what our opponents are saying. Beyond these efforts—yes, the battle for political correctness has been taken too far. But why perpetuate the struggle? The better communications answer is perhaps to let up on the PC legislation and to focus our efforts on better emotional maturity and fundamental behavior instead.

Source: http://www.forbes.com/sites/cherylsnappconner/2014/07/22/political-correctness-gone-rampant-use-these-3-communications-tips-to-survive/

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