Terms of Endearment

“I’ll have my girl call your girl.”

It you ever watch Mad Men on AMC you might have heard Don Draper say this to clients. In much of the 20th century, this type of phrasing and labeling was commonplace. My grandfather referred to his secretary as his “girl” and the man who ran the copy machine as the “copy boy”. He also uses some off color words that were acceptable and widely used in the past to  describe some people and groups. My how times have changed! Thanks to legislation like Title VII and Executive Order 11246, labels like “girl” are not part of the employment vocabulary. There are still people who use terms like this and others to designate a person or group of people. Many have made the switch to more appropriate – or politically correct – words but some are still stuck in another era. How do you change this thought pattern? Is it possible to teach “an old dog new tricks?”

It is important to know why the person uses inappropriate labels for other people. Is it out of ignorance or malice? The approach to and the way to address these two extremes is different. Ignorance may be easy to explain away, but may be harder to influence change in. Most of the time, it is the lack of knowledge that fuels the usage of these labels for people. Labels exist for gender, age, race, national origin, sexual orientation and numerous other groups and situations. Changing the behavior of an adult takes time and effort. It will not happen overnight.

Diversity and sensitivity training might help. There are exercises and activities that can help identify labels and show potential reactions to those labels. I have used training drills that proved to be quite effective but had the ability to be volatile. Labels are usually tied to stereotypes and can bring about emotions, sometimes extreme, in those involved in the exercises. Be sure to monitor the group to ensure tempers and reactions are in check. Providing a safe learning environment might still not remedy a potentially unstable activity. It is best to be on guard and maintain control as the activity unfurls. There are many options out there for labeling sensitivity development and it is best to know your group when selecting the one you want to use. Not all the activities will work for all situations – and some could even become explosive!

Don’t forget to CELEBRATE!


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