I had a bit of a shock recently when I realized how politically correct I have become. Part of this I put down to my work across cultural divides, but part of it is also due to the changing social landscape of modern London. How different things were only 15 years ago. How we laughed at those politically correct diktats wafting across the Atlantic, proscribing our way of life and suffocating our jokes. But then it dawned on us that not everyone was laughing. And that you were the one whose throwaway lines were met with a steely challenge or a stony stare.
Recently I was running a cross-cultural management exercise, observing a group of international executives – four men, an economist from Ghana, a Scottish (Asian) pharma salesman, an accountant from Russia, and a trader from Japan, and one woman, a banker from Iceland – trading feedback on their management styles. All were highly successful in their respective industries and they had worked harmoniously as a group over the previous week, so I was not prepared for what happened that afternoon.
From a warm discussion about their different backgrounds and countries, the atmosphere suddenly cooled when they began to exchange comments about each others’ styles. The Ghanaian, struggling to explain his admiration of his Icelandic colleague’s cool demeanour, blew his metaphor by declaring her juicy and cool like a giant cucumber. Picking up the culinary theme, the Scot suggested the Russian was as bland and stodgy as porridge, which is not an easy one to spin across the culture divide. When the Russian described the Ghanaian as Tarzan of the jungle, I had to step in, mindful of his earlier injudicious comments about his boss being “foreign, a Polack, and a Jew.” The Japanese trader was also stumbling into a minefield of discussion with the Scot about Muslims and management.
Within the space of 10 minutes the atmosphere of ease had turned ugly and silent. Had we taken a wrong turn because of language difficulties, cultural norms, or simple personal prejudices? How could I unravel these different strands before the hurt intensified?
It was a tough call. In the end I decided it was language and cultural differences that had brought out these odd comments, rather than any intention to hurt or demean. Different societies have different norms and sometimes ideas just don’t translate well in a third language. So I opted to mediate, smoothing the rough edges of the feedback by rephrasing the participant’s words and (I’m afraid to say) changing their tone until the hurt and puzzled looks around the table were replaced by cautious smiles. I am sure they had been aware of what I had been doing and that their thinking had subtly shifted. As we wrapped up, I mentally tried to assess the damage: we had crossed at least five ‘lines’ of political correctness – gender, ethnicity, looks, age, and religion – only sexual orientation had missed the list.
After the session I began to appreciate how important it is for us to ensure we hold to politically correct principles, however negative our perceptions of the phrase. From its origins in Marxist-Leninist vocabulary through its 1970s revival in criticism of Leftist thinking and subsequent conservative challenge to teaching methods, political correctness has always had negative connotations. Yet today, I think most of us would find it hard to object to the principles behind its definitions: “a term used to describe language or behavior which is intended, or said to be intended, to provide a minimum of offense, particularly to racial, cultural, or other identity groups” and “avoidance of language that potentially could be considered discriminatory.”
The language connection is an interesting one, given the important role language plays in cultural perceptions. Linguistic theorists of the 1960s promoted “inclusive” or “neutral” language, suggesting that different patterns of language yield different patterns of thought – sexist language promotes sexist thought, for example. Another view, promoted by writers such as Noam Chomsky and Steven Pinker, is that language is innate and universal, and that thought is independent of language.
So where does this leave us? Thinking hard, I suspect, about every encounter so we are able to understand not only how others see the world but also how we view it. Although it’s also worth remembering that it’s our differences – personality, culture, language – that provide the spark to those encounters and make them memorable.
Has political correctness crept into your organization? Let us know.
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