Sticks and stones? Your choice of words matters


As I watched this year’s (largely) predictable Academy Awards, I found myself—when not wincing in response to the numerous low points in the show—thinking of one of my favorite scenes from this year’s multi-award winner, The King’s Speech.

“If I am King, where is my power? Can I declare war? Form a government? Levy a tax? No! And yet I am the seat of all authority because they think that when I speak, I speak for them.”

These words, spoken by the future King George VI, played flawlessly by Colin Firth, reminded me once again of the large role that communication, specifically the written and spoken word, plays in leadership.

In “Bertie’s” case, the fate of a nation literally depended on his ability to speak to his people in a compelling, confidence-inspiring way. In short, words (and how we use them) matter.

Today, I’d like to channel my inner Lionel Logue—not to address barrier-producing grammatical usage, as I have in a previous article, but to advance the idea that our word choices themselves can create barriers, and can send unintended—and sometimes harmful—messages.

Therefore, as of today, I’m suggesting we remove the following phrases from our business conversations:

“Off the reservation”—We use this phrase all the time to refer to someone who is operating outside of expected norms or breaking the rules in some way. My issue with this phrase stems from its origins, which refer to a Native American who has had the temerity to stray off the land Uncle Sam reserved for his tribe in exchange for claiming all the other land for himself. Not a problematic reference…unless you put yourself in the shoes of a Native American.

“Rape and pillage”—Tragically, this term is sometimes used in a business or sports context to describe a particularly messy defeat or easy “conquest”—only ever by males, it should be noted. Do I really need to explain why it’s not appropriate in either setting, given its original meaning? C’mon guys!

“She’s a real slave driver”—We casually use this term to describe a boss who works his or her people especially hard. Ironically, it’s often used as kind of a backhanded compliment. But before we lightly toss this term around, perhaps we should pause and think about the emotional “buttons” this phrase might push for someone whose ancestors were brought to this country in chains.

“He’s just bitching”
—Let’s see, where do I start? We commonly use this to refer to someone who is complaining, right? In other words, we associate the words “bitch” and “complain”; they’re practically synonymous. Obviously, the origins of the former have a pretty direct gender connotation. So what we’re really doing is reinforcing an unfair gender stereotype every time we use this phrase. Last time I checked, neither gender had cornered the market on complaining. If you don’t believe me, just watch a little C-SPAN.

“Come on, ladies”
—Speaking of gender stereotypes, boys… When you use this phrase to criticize a group of your (male) buddies for not “stepping up,” what message are you reinforcing about what it means to be a “lady”? Enough said.

“That’s so gay”—You knew I would get to this one, didn’t you? Fortunately, and perversely, this phrase seems to be restricted to a pretty young demographic. I say perversely, since there seems to be a pretty strong correlation between LGBT (Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender) tolerance/acceptance and youth, yet this is just the group that uses the phrase most often. But to my point, in today’s world, is it really fair to refer to something that you see as screwed up or silly as “gay?”

“That’s retarded”
—By now, after the whole Tropic Thunder debate, we should all be more sensitive to the use of this phrase to describe something that’s obviously incorrect or inappropriate. You shouldn’t have to be the parent of a special-needs child to understand the damage the “r-word” does in perpetuating bigotry and bias against people with disabilities.

“Chinese fire drill”—Again, really? I’m not even sure I understand the origins of this one, but we only use this phrase to describe a situation that has run completely amok, something that’s just a mess. So that’s probably not a good thing to be associated with, right? Just ask any member of the Asian community what they think.

Look, don’t get me wrong. I’m not any bigger fan of “political correctness” than the next person. At five-foot-nine, I don’t think you should have to refer to me as “vertically challenged”; I’m okay with “short.”

It’s possible to take the euphemism thing too far, leading to confusing distortions of the language. Case in point: If your boss says to you, “I have an issue I’d like to discuss with you.” Is that a good thing or a bad thing? Twenty years ago, you would have said, “I don’t know,” because the word “issue” was a neutral word, meaning “topic” or “subject.”

But somewhere along the way, we—probably some HR “guru”—decided that we couldn’t say someone had a “problem” and started saying they had “issues” instead. So now, the word “issue” has a negative connotation. What’s next, do we need to start saying a person has “opportunities” instead of “issues” because “issues” is now too negative?

However, the phrases I’ve noted earlier aren’t just “politically incorrect” (with all apologies to Bill Maher); they’re just plain harmful. They, consciously or not, make an inappropriate connection between a bad outcome and a specific group of people. In today’s world, it’s not enough for a leader to just “look respectable in uniform and not fall off his [or her] horse” (as Bertie’s father reminded us); it’s our job to connect with—and speak for—all our employees.

Keith Wiedenkeller welcomes your comments at