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How does political correctness affect your team?

Sneha Khilay, founder of Blue Tulip Training
gender pay gap

At a team building session I was facilitating recently, one staff member said he was getting rather weary of the ‘Chinese whispers’ going around the team. Soon after, the manager stood up, put one hand on the hip, pointed a finger at him and exclaimed “that is not a politically correct comment!” The staff member looked mortified. From Professional Sneha Khilay, Development Consultant and Trainer, working in Personal and Professional Development in International Markets. She is the founder of Blue Tulip Training.

What is it about politically correct (PC) language that causes this kind of reaction amongst people? Has it become a competitive concept of ‘who is in the know’ in being able to use the politically correct language and thereafter using this knowledge as a method to deride others? Or has it become a mechanism to feign ignorance and avoid taking responsibility? A senior manager at an organisation I was working with continued to use the term ‘coloured’ even though it had been brought to her attention several times that the majority find this term offensive – each time she would respond with ‘oops I didn’t know that’.

On the flip side, comments have been made that political correctness has become a tool to avoid acknowledging any misconduct or shortcoming of individuals belonging to a minority group. So where does the PC language fit when people genuinely do not know what to say and are too fearful or anxious to even ask? A board member at another organisation approached me at the end of a training session and admitted he was too scared to ask where I had travelled from in case I was offended by his questions, and another male manager wanted to compliment his secretary’s outfit at the annual event but was worried that it would be interpreted in a negative context.

There is another angle to consider; the opinions of the individual. An openly gay man on my training programme said he would not be offended if he was referred to as a ‘faggot’, but another woman responded that she would find it offensive if anyone was referred to with this term. On a simpler scale, how about referring to women as ‘girls’ and men as ‘lads’. Are these acceptable terms to use? Some women like to be called ‘girls’! Then there are those who use the concept of PC in a derogatory manner – the argument being that it inhibits freedom of expression, particularly the expression of opinions that risk offending some groups. It has been observed by some that PC language has become an indulgent process to pander to minority groups.

One of the ground rules I introduce at the start of an Equality and Diversity training session is to ask for political correctness to be put to one side, and for all to behave in a professional manner. The sigh of relief that resounds in the room indicates the pressure to be PC and the fear (and consequences) of getting it wrong. The group conversation that follows the introduction of this ground rule is symbolic of the concerns around ‘what is and is not acceptable’. The old adage of ‘one person’s sense of humour is another person’s insult.’ Putting this into an organisational context, does political correctness fall within our policies?

Fundamentally language shapes and reinforces its speakers’ ideas and actions. The goal of using appropriate language in these changing times is not to cause any undue offence to anyone. Political Correctness is about raising awareness, allowing for people to make more informed choices about their use of language, which influence behaviour and attitude. For example, sexist language reinforces and promotes sexist thought which could lead to sexist (or even violent) behaviour. The main purpose of politically correct language is to reduce stigma and discrimination by making it socially unacceptable to use such terms, which in the past have been used in an abusive, derogatory or patronising way (whether consciously or, more often, unconsciously). However it does need to be acknowledged that political correctness has at times been taken to such lengths that it has created a backlash of hostility and ridicule, whereby changes are seen as threatening and imposed. The ban in the use of the term ‘Happy Christmas’ in some local authorities is a good example. The big question we need to ask ourselves is whether the use of politically correct language has actually reduced discrimination, or if it has simply created more fear and anxiety.

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