Lenora Billings-Harris

Article Summary:

How and why you should adopt political correctness and diversity in your speech.

Political Correctness and Diversity in Public Speaking

Are you tired of political correctness (p.c.) and wonder why speakers are expected to use language that shows sensitivity to ethnicity, gender, sexuality, ability, age, etc? Are you ready to show sensitivity, but are not sure how to develop your 1diversibility™?

Sometimes the power of words is underestimated. In the November, 1997 issue of Professional Speaker, Glenna Salsbury, CSP, CPAE shared the following quote by E. Hubbard from the late 1800’s:

“The voice is the sounding board of the soul. If your soul is filled with truth, your voice will vibrate with love, echo with sympathy and fill your hearers with the desire to do, to be and to become. Your desire is theirs.”

As speakers we are expected to be vigilant in our use of words in order to convey the meaning intended. The meaning of words is in the message itself, not just in the words alone.

One ill-chosen word however can create friction between people. It can cause the audience to loose the intent of your message, and it can cause you to loose booking opportunities. During the Eastern Educational Workshop in Norfolk, one of my table guests at Meet the Pros shared with us that she had been informed by her meeting planner of a comment made by another speaker. While on the platform he made subtle innuendoes about gay men. He probably does not know why this meeting planner will never book him again.

Surely we do not intend to offend anyone, but we are unaware of how our biases affect our behavior, we run the risk of offense. It is the result of the message, not the intention that will leave a lasting legacy.

One person can never know all of the correct words to use, however our clients in both the corporate and non-profit world have been implementing diversity initiatives, and sensitizing their leaders and staff for several years. We, as professional speakers, cannot afford to fall behind if we expect them to look to us for guidance, regardless of our area of expertise. Since professional speakers and consultants are looked up to as role models and are expected to be trendsetters whether we like it or not, we have a responsibility to make an effort in this regard.

So what can you do?
First of all don’t become overly stressed out. Just as you would research your topic, today’s meeting planners expect you to research your audience. You will never please everyone, but if your intentions are positive, and people are aware that you are attempting to broaden your awareness and respect, usually no offense will be taken. For example, while attending the Jewish Service at the Western Educational Workshop, I wanted to be sure to avoid accidentally offending anyone. I am not Jewish, so I sat in the back, followed the leader’s behavior, or quietly watched. Just before the wine was to be passed, I whispered in Joanne Schlosser’s ear, “Is it okay for those of us who are not Jewish to participate in Communion?” Joanne graciously whispered back, “We do not have Communion.” Oops! I knew that. After the service we had a good laugh. I went to the service to enjoy and learn, but my Christian upbringing caused me to use the wrong word. She knew I meant no harm.

Some people are effective at showing their sensitivity while poking fun at “political correctness” at the same time. Jeffrey Gitomer, CSP was very skilled at this technique during his Eastern Educational Workshop, 1998, presentation. (Listen to tape #9, Shifting from Competing to Positioning.) Because of the way he used the terms “girl” and “chick” it was clear that he knew these terms would be inappropriate in most situations, but he was able to make his point, make the audience laugh, and not offend. Warren Greshes, NSA board member, effectively pokes fun at being from New York. He is not offensive to most in the audience, because he is from New York. Emory Austin, and Jeanne Robertson respectfully poke fun at their height and being from the South. There is a fine line however between being funny and being offensive, even when the humor is self-deprecating. It takes practice to look spontaneous! These speakers exemplify how to do it well.

Ed Robinson demonstrated his awareness by using a word that Maya Angelou coined when referring to female heroes. He said “sheroes.” Some in the audience apparently had not heard this word before, but when he repeated it later the meaning was very clear to everyone, and it did not distract from his message (Tape # 21-Building Legacies through Selling Success).

How can you refer to ethnicity in a sensitive way?
Obviously the best thing to do is to refer to the person by name, however that is not always possible or practical. Most people want to be referred to by terms they have chosen, not labels selected by others outside their group. Perhaps it would be easier to increase sensitivity if more people understood the implications of some words.

Many people with Latino heritage, for example, do not like the term Hispanic, because it was a term formulated by the United States Census Bureau in 1970. When it was realized that many U.S. households consisted of families who spoke Spanish, there had not previously been a way to record this. Rather than attempt to identify every country of heritage, the Census Bureau created the word Hispanic. It is a generalized term used when describing a diverse group of people whose primary or ancestral language is often Spanish. Certainly the cultures of Mexico, Puerto Rico, Argentina, and Guatemala are distinctly different, yet this word lumps them all together. On the other hand, some people of Latino heritage prefer the term Hispanic because they believe it carries less bias than the words, Mexican or Puerto Rican, for instance.

Many Blacks prefer African American because the word black is rarely capitalized even when it is specifically refers to that ethnic group (except within books written by African Americans and magazines targeted to the African American culture), whereas “African American” does have the honor of capital letters. Some people believe the small case “b” is another example of subtle, institutionalized racism. The term African American is a source of pride for many, even though Africa is a continent, not a country. Unlike European Americans (the politically correct term for white people), who can choose to recognize their Irish, German, or Italian heritage, African Americans do not have that option. For many it is impossible to identify their ancestors’ country of origin. On the other hand, some Blacks prefer “Black” not “African American” because they see themselves as American and not African. Each time I visit South Africa to work with organizations there, I am acutely aware that I am American, even though I am proud of my African heritage.

The term “American” is seen as 2 ethnocentric by some, when referring to the inhabitants of the United States, because Canadians and people from Central and South America are technically Americans too.

Staying abreast of the current “correct” words is challenging at best, because the rules keep changing. Personally, I would like to meet the “they” that keep changing the rules!

Ask, instead of assuming.
When a reference must be made, ask people who are members of the group, which term they prefer. The answers will vary. People have individual preferences, but your interest in asking questions will demonstrate your effort to show respect. Too often we assume, instead of asking, thus causing misunderstandings and conflict. Perhaps a more effective way of referring to different ethnic groups is to place the word American in front of the ethnicity; for example, Americans with European heritage, Americans with Asian heritage, Americans with Latino heritage, etc. Although using words and phrases that show respect and sensitivity require effort, it really is not very difficult or time consuming. Changing any habit is uncomfortable.

What should you do when the audience member uses an inappropriate term?
As speakers our role is to educate, not intimidate or embarrass, but this does pose a challenging situation. Because I speak on this topic, I let my workshop audiences know that we are all learners (as evidenced by the above example). I tell them that I will share “p.c.” words with them, so they can choose whether or not they will use them. Most diversity collisions are totally accidental, thus with more knowledge we can avoid errors due to ignorance. As the workshop progresses I gently inform folks of less offensive terms. The one that is misused most often is “Oriental” instead of “Asian” when referring to people. Oriental is correct when referring to food, furniture or rugs, not when referring to people.

If diversity is not your area of specialty, I suggest that you find a private moment to give feedback to the “offender.” Remember that the comment was most likely made due to lack of information, and approach him or her with the intention of helping. Most people will react with gratitude.

If we want the cycle of intolerance to stop, we need to be willing to speak up, and give feedback with compassion. Some people might think we are being too picky, but can we afford not to be, if as an association we are setting the standard for the industry?

Let your words be a bridge, not a barrier to the message of your soul, and the telling of your truth. Your audience will remember and appreciate you just that much more.

Terms to Know
1. Diversibility™: Having the ability to interact effectively and non-offensively with many different types of groups and cultures.

2. Ethnocentric: Characterized by or based on the attitude that one’s own group is superior.

For more ideas from The Sideroad, read Politically Correct Language.

Lenora Billings-Harris, CSP is an internationally recognized speaker, performance improvement consultant, and author with more than twenty five years experience in the public and private sectors. As a workforce diversity specialist, and performance improvement consultant, Lenora has developed a unique way of presenting sensitive topics in a high-energy, fun-filled, yet thought-provoking way. Her interactive style, and immediately applicable “how to’s” have caused clients to invite her back again and again. She works with Fortune 500 companies as well as several professional associations, and non-profit organizations. She also served as an adjunct professor for Arizona State University. Lenora has presented to audiences in South Africa, Spain, Germany, Belgium, Russia, Ukraine, and Mexico and Canada. More information on the topic of diversity, Lenora Billings-Harris, and her book The Diversity Advantage: A Guide to Making Diversity Work can be found on her website, www.lenoraspeaks.com.

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