I was at a poetry slam this past week – yes, it was as cool as it sounds. One of the ways the emcee got the the audience engaged with the poets was through a call and response. It got me thinking about how call and response is common at sporting events, religious services, and music concerts to name a few examples. It can be used to rile up a crowd, urge on a team, spur people into action, and create connection.
The satisfaction of the call and response at this poetry slam landed on me as a need in the audience to close the language circle – someone calls out to us and as humans, we want to respond. This got me thinking more about my use of certain types of language, my intention, and my effectiveness – as a leader – to communicate.
We are many years past the first mention of the concept of political correctness that started in the late 1980’s. People first language, trauma-informed, and micro aggressions are newer entries into our lexicon. My understanding on how to use words in ways that are more inclusive and less triggering for audiences or individuals is evolving as I learn more about these concepts. I’ve had quite a bit of training on this topic and try to be respectful with my choice of language, but I have a tendency to be drawn to the dramatic effect of language that can get in my way.
For example, I use quite a few metaphors that are sports-based and war-themed. My metaphors can have a violent edge to them, e.g. double-edged sword, forewarned is forearmed; scorched-earth. The sports-themed metaphors I use might leave someone out or obscure my point; however, I’ve come to realize that the violent ones I use might turn someone off or even traumatize them.
One of the metaphors I use repeatedly is “cutting edge.” I also refer to what happens when an organization is cutting edge as bleeding edge. When I use this phrasing the point I’m trying to make is that when an organization makes the decision to do something cutting edge, they might also bleed money. I don’t say this to discourage innovation but to call attention to the risk that there can be literal cost in dollars to being at the forefront of a big change.
What I realized was that every time I talk about cutting edge services, I also make a vertical slicing motion down both of my wrists, to dramatize, I guess, the idea of cutting wrists. I stand there with my wrists turned upward talking about how cutting edge often means bleeding edge, holding the pose as I visualize money bleeding from my outstretched wrists. Last time I did this, I stopped myself in my tracks. In that very moment, friends of mine who were reeling from the effects of loved ones’ suicides came to mind. Who else in the room might be distracted or distraught rather than inspired by my impromptu pantomime?
I want to be more careful with my word choice. For me, it starts with awareness. Why am I choosing these phrases? How much of it is automatic reflex and how much is for dramatic effect? I’m a very visual person, so I know that some of my choices come from my need to connect a concept with a visual manifestation of that concept. And while it seems like words can fly out of my mouth of their own accord, I know that’s not true. There is a millisecond between when I mentally form my words and when I say them. This is a scientific fact. I can choose more carefully. For me PC can mean PAUSE and CHOOSE. Pause before I speak and Choose my words carefully.
Change the Call
This past week, I reached out to someone I trust to help me brainstorm other ways I could get across the concept of cutting edge without using those words. She suggested leading-edge or innovative. Those don’t get to the exact meaning for me, so I let it sit. Today it came to me. What I mean is early adoption. Early adopters are people who act early in the market and as a result pay a literal higher cost either in terms of more dollars or beta-features. The etymology of “cutting edge” started with the idea of a sharp edge of an implement, like the edge of a plow (1825). Somehow I turned the idea of a sharp implement that cuts the earth into one that cuts into flesh.
I have many other examples I could use, even from the past week. Maybe if I start with understanding where a phrase comes from, I can find other ways to be authentic and use words that resonate rather than wound. How hard is it to change my thinking and phrasing? I’ll find out. Forming a new habit takes practice and patience. It also takes reaching out to others to learn what works and what doesn’t.
I don’t want to become the PC police for other people. I want to find words and images I can use that are effective for getting my point across. As a leader in my organization, everything I say can be taken as a call and response. It’s time for me to set the bar higher. (Visualizing the high jump bar at a track meet….)
Blink: The Power of Thinking without Thinking, Malcolm Gladwell, 2011
Thinking Fast and Slow, Daniel Kahneman, 2011