Picture the scene: You’re getting a haircut and everything’s just dandy. You’re taking part in the usual chit-chat with the new barber about the weather, the football and where you’re going on holiday.
Then out of nowhere, the conversation takes an ugly turn. Almost as if in slow-mo, the person with scissors right next to your head blurts out something astonishingly racist.
Moral dilemma – do you say something, and risk offending the offender? Or let it slide, worried that piping up will earn you a clipped ear – or worse – a mullet?
We’re all different, so some folks won’t be too phased. But under such circumstances, even if the customer sits through an entire rant, it’s possible they’ll be taking their business elsewhere next time, if only to avoid feeling uncomfortable.
Whilst this is quite the extreme hypothetical case (I don’t think I’ve ever met a bigoted barber), if you want to ensure your staff or co-workers aren’t costing you business, it’s worth having a word if you hear them being offensive.
How to react when a co-worker drops a clanger
Whether it’s in the workplace, the pub or social media, it can be very easy to get worked up when someone comes out with something prejudiced. I can attest that blowing your top at someone or outright calling them stupid isn’t the most pragmatic way of getting your point across, and certainly doesn’t make you feel any better.
Chances are though, the person in question hasn’t thought their utterings through at all, and won’t be used to having to explain themselves. Remember – be less Jeremy Kyle, more Louis Theroux. Simply asking, ‘why do you say that?’ is often enough to cause the person to realise they haven’t based their statement on any reliable research, which in turn will make them feel a bit silly and think before saying anything so daft in future.
In more persistent cases, it can be worth being a bit more direct, but be sure to make the issue about the statement, not the person. A diplomatic way to deal with this might be to tell the offender that you think they’re a cool person, but it’s a bit disappointing to hear them say something like that, and you’re afraid clients and co-workers will not be too happy to hear it.
If it’s a major cause for concern on a repeated basis, be sure to consult our guide to disciplinary procedures and common mistakes made by employers before taking the appropriate action.
Be polite (please)
Although obviously not as damaging as using the more notoriously bigoted slurs, if you’re promoting an inclusive and equal workplace, it’s not just your co-workers who should be thinking about their choice of words. No, not because the ‘political correctness brigade’ will come after you if you don’t, but simply because it’s nice to be nice, and people appreciate it.
It’s quite difficult to speak favourably about inclusivity without being accused of ‘PC fascism’. Satirical comedy show South Park has recently lampooned this theme with the introduction of the new hyper-sensitive school principal, who dishes out violent beatings to anyone who doesn’t share his obsession with social justice.
‘PC Principal’ serves as a healthy reminder of how pushy one can come across if you get too wrapped up in language. We all accidentally blurt out old-fashioned terms every now and then, so it’s absolutely not necessary to get overly militant and brutish about it.
But caricatures aside, it’s important to consider what comedian Stewart Lee described as ‘institutionalised politeness’. For all the criticism ‘Political Correctness’ gets, there’s absolutely nothing wrong with taking a couple of seconds to assess whether the words you use are inadvertently discriminatory.
In a joint publication from the TUC and Unison entitled ‘Diversity in Diction, Equality in Action’, the introduction states:
“The term ‘political correctness’ is often used as an excuse, a criticism or an accusation by people unwilling or unable to take responsibility for their actions. We are not seeking to achieve political correctness. We do want to achieve professional appropriateness.”
It’s worth remembering that seemingly normal words can subtly hurt people, even the word ‘normal’ itself.
Labelling anybody as ‘normal’ can imply that those who don’t fall into this category are ‘abnormal’. Former Work and Pensions Secretary Iain Duncan Smith recently fell in hot water after using the term to describe people without disabilities.
“I think the figure is now over 220,000 …” IDS said of the Government’s record on getting people with disabilities back into work. “But the most important point is that we are looking to get that up to the level of normal, non-disabled people who are back in work.”
Social affairs journalist Frances Ryan wrote in the Guardian: “Yes, it is important to bring disabled people up to the level of ‘normal’ people. Similarly, I often think it would be wonderful to bring the competence and empathy of the secretary of state for work and pensions up to the level of a trained chimp.”
Peri, a particularly astute commenter on Yahoo Answers summed this up very well:
“What is normal? If you live in a country like America where people are predominantly white, would that mean white people are normal and ethnic minorities are not normal simply because there’s more of white people than ethnic minority people? Does that mean a white person with a popular hair/eye colour are normal, but white people with less common hair/eye colour are not? It’s got nothing to do with political correctness, and has everything to do with respect.”
Is this position only open to men? If the answer is ‘no’ (as it really should be!), the term ‘chairperson’ or just ‘chair’ is more inclusive, unless of course you’re referring to a man who currently holds the position,
The Telegraph, on the other hand, clarify in their style guide: “chairman [should be used] even when she is a woman. Chair, except in direct quotes, means a piece of furniture.”
When Rona Fairhead was en route to becoming the chairperson of the BBC, the Daily Mail proclaimed that she would be the BBC’s first “female chairman”. A little more surprisingly, the women and equalities minister Nicky Morgan tweeted her congratulations to “the new BBC chairman”“ and even Fairhead herself was quoted as saying that she was “honoured to have the opportunity to be the chairman of the BBC Trust”.
Evidently not everybody is too wound up by this, but it is often argued that the glass ceiling women experience at work is propped up by the lack of progression within our language. Perhaps we have a chicken-and-egg situation where there aren’t enough female chairpeople to make this a normality – who knows?
There’s certainly the argument that ‘man’ is just an arbitrary term to describe humankind as a whole. This is understandable, but as a relic of a yesteryear when many more of the women in this country’s rights and opportunities were shamefully and undeniably disregarded, it was inevitable that there would eventually be calls to reassess this outdated attitude – pedantic or not.
Melissa Yoong of the University of Nottingham asks:
“Why is it ok to refer to Rona Fairhead as a chairman, but not John McFarlane as Aviva’s new male chairwoman? The fact that masculine compounds – such as chairman – signify power whereas proposals to use their feminine counterparts are criticised as PC over-sensitivity that lack real substance indicates that we have not achieved gender equality.”
‘The girls in the office’, whilst seemingly a friendly collective term, only technically makes sense if you’re referring to, as the Oxford Dictionary puts it, female children. Most people will take this as a colloquial collective term as intended, but many find it just a tad patronising. ‘Women’ or ‘ladies’ tend to evoke less resentment.
“When people are criticised for “throwing like a girl”, “crying like a girl” or “being a big girl’s blouse”, it implies that there is nothing as rubbish or weak as a girl” said columnist Naomi McAuliffe in the Guardian.
Some might point out that the Spice Girls, as the biggest female only act to come from the UK, and the purveyors of the ‘Girl Power’ craze, were an example of the empowerment of the word ‘girls’. Granted, it’s in a different league, but just because N.W.A also became popular in the nineties, does that make it acceptable to drop ‘the N-bomb’ at work? Probably not.
TUC/Unison’s guide states “There is no set age at which a girl becomes a woman, but a reasonable guide is that after 16 she is no longer a “girl”, but rather a “young woman.””
‘Boyfriend / Girlfriend’
A survey of 150,000 by the Office of National Statistics in 2013 people found that 1.7% of that sample size identified as lesbian, gay or bisexual.
As the saying goes ‘assume’ makes an ‘ass’ of ‘u’ and ‘me’ – so if you’re nosey enough to be asking about someone’s love life, it’s most polite to keep it gender neutral until you know how your colleague likes to address their significant other. ‘Other half’ or ‘partner’ are among the less assumptuous synonyms.
“’Partner’ as cold as it is, does connote equality, doesn’t mark gender and doesn’t imply possession.” writes Michelangelo Signorile in the Huffington Post. He’s right, it’s a bit formal, but at least it’s better choice than ‘bae’.
It’s good to talk
Overall, it’s hard to get something right when there’s no official right and wrong. Not only can language pejorate and ameliorate over time (the reduced formal use of the term ‘spastic’ being a good case study), but everyone has their own perception of what is or isn’t offensive. But that isn’t an excuse for being reckless with people’s feelings, particularly if you’re running a business.
Contrary to popular belief, you CAN teach an old dog new tricks. You can always ask questions if you’re unsure, and apologise if you think you’ve said something inappropriate. We’re all human, but as my parents would say – manners don’t cost anything.
Still confused? ACAS, the publically funded workplace advisory service, offer a course called ‘Is it OK to ask?’, which may answer any more complex queries.