In today’s workplace, having diverse teams with people of different races, genders, and other identity groups is critical. The bottom-line business benefits of having a diverse workforce are clear — with increases in innovation and productivity — but navigating different groups of people and personalities isn’t always easy. You’ve probably heard of instances when someone was chastised for using the wrong pronoun or an offensive term. In an era of political correctness, people can begin to feel judged or blamed, not only for what they say, but how they say it.
Careful thought to language use can be an important part of an inclusive workplace. “Language, … when used carelessly or maliciously, can reveal and promote our biases against various identity groups.” However, an overly “PC” (Politically-correct) culture that places more focus on blame than understanding can actually cause more division within a group and piss people off. Take Tom, for example, a white male employee who meets a new team member, Taylor, for the first time. Based on Taylor’s appearance, Tom assumes that they are a female and uses the term “she” throughout the conversation. The reality is, however, that Taylor identifies as a man. Taylor reactively scolds Tom for the incorrect use — and their interaction quickly turns sour. Over time, Tom feels withdrawn and avoids further interaction with his new team member.
Taylor had every right to correct their coworker over desired pronoun use. What we all really want is to be shown respect in our everyday interactions. Language can be symbolic of this respect. Out-group members – similar to in-group members – want to feel welcome and included. The key though is in how to convey that; there are other ways that one can act in order to promote team cohesion rather than alienation. If you come across someone like Tom, the first step is empathy. Step back from your frustration. Tom didn’t know – and probably assumed based on his limited exposure to non-gender conforming people. Making Tom feel stupid is unlikely to open his mind to learning. Politely asking for what you want, without judgement or blame, is respectful and in turn, opens the door for reciprocal empathy and respect. It might even foster a learning moment that could expand Tom’s perspective.
No one wants to be called something they are not. For example, Jodi doesn’t like to be called a “girl”. For her, as an adult, professional woman, “girl” feels disrespectful and discounting of her accomplishments. So, when she is called a “girl”, it goes deep. But instead of reacting negatively, Jodi could give the colleague the benefit of the doubt and ask for the language she desires. “I notice you referred to the men in the group as “men” but for me you used the term “girl”. It made me feel like I am taken less seriously. I would appreciate it if you referred to me as a woman in the future.”
Of course, empathy works in both directions. Often out-group members have a reaction that seems disproportionate to the situation because of the proverbial “straw that broke the camel’s back.” Because some – and usually a very small proportion – of in-group members use language as a power tool to bully others, there can be an assumption that all mistakes are disingenuous. And while you might think “she is just being sensitive”, that language doesn’t matter and correct pronoun use is frivolous, that could be because you have not had the same history of microaggressions or negative language used against you. Chronic abuse can make someone put up their radar. When a male colleague refers to Jodi as a “girl”, she might assume he being disrespectful because men have used the term disrespectfully to her in the past, and react accordingly. Showing empathy to her perspective and doing your best to use the term she prefers is respectful and will generally defuse the situation.
If you make a language mistake, you might ask for more clarification or context surrounding the topic. “Would you be willing to tell me why that word is offensive?” and “What is the best way to refer to you?” Take the time to reflect on what you’ve learned, and assess what assumptions show up for you. Consider how the other person feels and imagine a time when you felt that way. It will immediately help you to understand their experience. Being respectful of someone doesn’t mean you have to agree with their point of view – you just need to acknowledge and honor it. You might even learn something new. Does it really matter to you what pronoun Taylor wants you to use?
Tom has indicated to his colleagues that he doesn’t want to go to dinner with anyone except his wife. His manager, Tina, doesn’t agree with his point of view, but she doesn’t schedule her one-on-one meetings with him over a meal out of respect. It might be unusual and slightly inconvenient, but respecting her colleague is more important. She certainly shouldn’t dismiss his point of view or shower him with microaggressions to underscore his out-group status.
Remember that using inclusive and civil language is ultimately about respecting other people, rather than ‘faking it’ in order to tick off the box of being politically correct. If your intentions are honest, people will be more open to sharing their position, giving you the space to learn and working toward mutual understanding. So, we need to stop chasing “PC” and instead focus on showing each other genuine two-way respect.
With all the personalities and possibilities of people in the workplace, it’s expected that there will be misunderstandings when it comes to sensitive topics and terms. But by cultivating an open environment, employees will feel safe enough to seek other’s experiences, reach out for support, and build stronger relationships.
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