A Values-Based Language
Peter Block, a well-known Organization Development guru, made the profound statement, “Change the language; change the world.” He meant the choice of words used and the type of conversation held; not the national language. This blog is written to convey how the use of outdated terminology by sub-cultures, and organizations, is self-limiting language.*
As cultures change (i.e. the way groups of people behave), so do languages evolve. Language matches the underlying values of a culture. Typically, we adapt our verbiage to match our values. Within an organization, consistency and alignment are necessary; otherwise, organizational values become mere rhetoric and hogwash. The underscored value here is Egalitarianism (i.e. Equality Orientation).
Three categories of examples are given: 1) Terms already not in use (i.e. Dead Terms), 2) Terms which are petering out (i.e. Dying Terms), and 3) Terms which are outdated and still in current use (i.e. Zombie Terms).
|Mr. Mom (so 1983)||Father/Parent|
|People of Color/Non-White||Majority|
Stewardess → Flight Attendant. The former, i.e. stewardess, is a word that carries a feminine suffix (-ess), which immediately speaks to the importance of emphasizing which gender is providing which service, making the value of Hierarchy more prominent in this word choice. It also may conjure up memories of how a stewardess had to be of a certain age, appearance, and weight – they would be weighed at work. The latter, i.e. flight attendant, is gender neutral, thereby incorporating the value of Egalitarianism, because it allows room for flight attendants to be of either sex, any age, weight, appearance, etc.
Mr. Mom → Father. There is no such thing as “Mr. Mom” or “babysitting” your own children…it’s called “parenting.” The label Mr. Mom implies that fathers have to take on responsibilities that are not theirs. It is, otherwise, an outdated notion that the woman must be the caretaker and the man must be the breadwinner.
Mrs. → Ms. There is no male equivalent for the title “Mrs.” that signals the same meaning. The title “Mr.” does not convey marital status, whereas “Mrs.” does. The title Mr. simply indicates an adult male. The appropriate match would be “Ms.” to indicate an adult female – marital status unknown. However, there are those women who will vehemently argue for the title of Mrs, because they are more traditionally-minded (read: Hierarchical), and there is nothing wrong with that. However, much of the newer generations find that title (i.e. Mrs.) a desire to signal to society that “someone bought the cow, instead of getting the milk for free,” and, therefore, being more equality-oriented, consciously elect to use the title Ms. to signal back, what the late Andy Rooney shared, “Women realize it’s not worth buying an entire pig just to get a little sausage!”
Girls → Women. I attended a session where the facilitator said, “The men’s restroom is over there (pointing to the left) and the girls’ restroom is over there (pointing to the right).” People started moving. I asked quickly, “Where is the women’s restroom?” He didn’t get the point. Subconsciously, however, we do get the point…so much so, that an unnecessary inferiority complex develops for some and a feeling of subordination develops for others. Take, for example, the latest statements made by Sydney Leathers who exposed (double entendre) Mayor-hopeful Anthony Weiner: “The part that’s most annoying is that I was 22 years old and in a bad place, but if anyone asked him he would say the same thing about himself, yet he’s an adult.” Note that Leathers was one year older than the legal drinking age in the USA (i.e. 21 years), yet Weiner is the “adult.” If we call ourselves “girls” and continue to allowed to be called “girls,” it can impact behavior negatively.
People of Color**/Non-White → Majority. Prejudice teaches us to unlearn some of the simple facts of life…white is a color. Last time I checked my Crayola box, there was a white crayon in there. Therefore, “People of Color” is redundant,since all people have color, even albinos…White people are not invisible.
As for the term “Non-White,” Peter Block has said, “Since when do we define people by what they are NOT?” For example, do we say, “Females and Non-Females? Domestic and Non-Domestic? Brunette and Non-Brunette?” White is the mainstream culture (i.e. WASP); and numberwise, the rest of the population is the “Majority.”
Feminist → Egalitarian. What is the male equivalent of Feminist? Is it Masculinist? No. This is because the word itself (i.e. Feminist) is the “Outsider” profile of the “Fighter” &/or “Separatist” (See blog Insider-Outsider Dynamics). The term is steeped in sexism. Equal pay for equal work has absolutely nothing to do with femininity.
If we are to change the world through our language, it is less effective to focus on asserting what separates us (albeit, another prideful point of distinction) and it is more effective to focus on those values which unite us. If the value is Egalitarianism, then this is the value we mirror with our language.
Rossina Gil, MSOD, MAIS, is a Leadership and Organization Development Practitioner, and the founder of a boutique consultancy of OD experts, Corporate Looking Glass. Please visit CorporateLookingGlass.com.
* Being “Politically Correct” implies the masking of bias.
** The NAACP (i.e. National Association for the Advancement of Colored People) are reinforcing visible differences in its title, as opposed to naming sub-cultures by geography – such as, “African-Americans.” This organization was founded in 1909…making it 105 years old.
Peter Block, Adjunct Professor at Pepperdine University Graziadio School of Business & Management
©Rossina Gil, 2014
Posted on June 26, 2014, in Uncategorized and tagged Andy Rooney, Change the language, Egalitarianism, equality orientation, mainstream, Mr. Mom, NAACP, outdated terminology, Peter Block. Bookmark the permalink. Leave a comment.