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November 24, 2010

Curing the Paralysis of Political Correctness: Were NPR's Williams and White House Press Vet Thomas Guilty of Poor Common Sense — Or Is Our Culture Just Overly Sensitive?

By Valda Boyd Ford, CEO, Center for Human Diversity

Our world today is awash with incidents where a casual comment, remark or question can invoke profound misunderstandings and consequences. High-profile examples include the firing of Juan Williams from NPR for a statement he made about being anxious when he sees people in traditional Muslim garb on airplanes, and the dismissal of White House press corps veteran Helen Thomas for comments she made about Israel's occupation of Palestine.

One doesn't have to be in the public eye to be affected by the fallout of violating political correctness standards. Many agonize over their word choice on even the most innocuous issues with an obsession that often borders on the absurd. A pre-school teacher overwhelmed when asked to explain the word "fairy" to her class; a British import asking if anyone has a "fag"; or a CEO addressing an all female audience as "girls" is enough to get the heart racing and HR managers scurrying to do damage control. In far too many instances, the purveyor of the politically incorrect term would be disciplined or fired.

At that point the whole organization becomes paralyzed. Those who once spoke openly now spend more time word-smithing than writing or speaking. Communication becomes stilted for fear of saying the wrong thing. Creativity flies out of the door.

Paralysis of political correctness is the fear that keeps people from doing their best in culturally and linguistically awkward situations; the fear that keeps everyone afraid of the word or phrase that shuts down communication and hurts both the sender and the receiver; that tongue-tied, stomach-churning sensation that makes you avoid talking with those who may need it the most.

Is there a cure? Perhaps what is needed is a dose of common sense stirred up within a soothing tea of good manners and critical thinking. The doctor preparing his presentation for the medical conference needed only to take a moment to analyze the situation. The answer to his question lay in the title of their organization: the Cuban-American Physicians' Association.

There is little doubt that the physicians know who they are and do not need a reference to their ethnicity. If, during the course of his speech he needs an accurate descriptor, Cuban-American is the obvious choice. However, addressing the physicians as "doctors" or colleagues will more than suffice.

Four basic fears can lead to the paralysis of political correctness:

  • Fear based on lack of knowledge of client (colleague) needs and expectations;
  • Fear from regulatory and administrative reprisal;
  • Fear of lack of competence; and/or
  • Fear of being found out.

The symptoms of PC Paralysis may cause many people to be hesitant in engaging in or moving forward with a conversation. If someone stammers and hesitates out of fear of saying the wrong thing, listeners may wonder about the reasons for the hesitancy, creating even more tension.

What is it that makes perfectly normal people freeze over seemingly simple messages when it involves someone of another race, ethnicity, gender, sexual preference, religion or physical ability? All are walking on eggshells because it is not known when the next errant word or phrase will result in protests, suspensions, or lawsuits.

The time is now for a return to common sense so well meaning, conscientious people can communicate honestly and authentically without being afraid of negative consequences.

The cure for the Paralysis of Political Correctness begins with these steps:

  1. Acknowledge just how much fear surrounds the possibility of offending others. Check written and unwritten rules to determine the cultural norms within the organization. Perhaps both formal and informal policies and procedures are in need of an overhaul if those policies usually lead to suspension or termination. Save harsh punishments for repeat offenders.
  2. Recognize that PC Paralysis stops or cripples communication in what is perceived to be culturally awkward situations. Work to create a culture that is inclusive and accepting of simple gaffes and faux pas. Develop mechanisms for damage repair that include education and exposure to those who may be seen as different (and the accompanying word - difficult).
  3. Realize that extraordinary efforts to tiptoe around potentially volatile words can be as offensive as a callous flippancy with those same words. Lunch and learn sessions are great venues for having open and safe (from censure) conversations about the scary word of the day.
  4. Own up to uncertainties up front as honest relationships are being built. Take steps to learn about the diversity of the workplace. Discomfort and fear diminish the more that is known about individuals and groups.

So, how is political correctness affecting behavior and the ability to genuinely connect with others? Recovery begins when the fear is named and acknowledged. The follow-up includes open-minded discovery and education to learn about the diversity in the organization and the community. The cure is long but not necessarily bitter when coated with respectful intentions. With patience and a sense of humor, the paralysis of political correctness can go the way of the rotary phone - seen from time to time but not in regular use.

Valda Boyd Ford is the CEO of the Center for Human Diversity and provides consulting and training across the USA and in two dozen countries. Valda is the author of chapters in two textbooks on ethics and cultural competency and is completing her own book "Don't Touch the Monk and other Stories of Global Faux Pas" available April 2011. See her site at www.valdaford.com.

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