Political Correctness or Just Common Courtesy?

By Steven E. Sacks, CPA, CGMA, ABC

The 2016 presidential campaign had been engulfed in the battle for and against political correctness. What people thought but never verbalized—at least in a large company of people—had made the art of conversation more difficult. College campuses, the bastions of higher learning and the incubator for dissenting opinions resulted in additions to our lexicon, such as “safe places” and “trigger warnings” in order to preclude the rise of “micro-aggression.” Legislation is trailing the changes taking place in the LGBT community, and decades after protective laws were passed, there still exists hostile work environments for women and minorities.

Today’s college students are exposed to greater on-campus diversity than in the days of my contemporaries, so one would think that there would be greater understanding and flexibility in human interaction. This really is not the case. If students think that tough challenges exist on campuses, wait until they graduate and enter the real world.

Look Beyond Your Own Personal Borders

As the world becomes more globally interdependent, encouragement of cultural diversity, and therefore, diversity of thought is now de rigueur. The idea makes for good headlines but do companies really reflect this in their interactions with employees, customers or clients? Do we really understand what culture is and how to avoid misunderstandings and clashes? The first step is to understand the difference between identity and culture. The former is related to where and with whom you belong, while the latter relates to an aggregation or commonality of social rules. Sometimes this distinction becomes murky, leading to intolerance and incivility.

Think about business negotiations. Consider how different conducting business on the east coast or west coast is from operating in Iowa or Texas. Then consider how exponentially different it is to conduct business in the US versus China or India. If businesses want to make a real penetration in a global market, they will need to understand cultures and norms and how to establish and maintain trust.

Formal greetings, business cards, meals, conducting meetings, mixing the social with business, business attire, negotiations, presentation styles, eye contact, hand gestures and body language are only a fraction of the elements that comprise appropriate comportment — and they differ from country to country, continent to continent. As such, when in Rome…means being aware of what is considered acceptable behavior.

Times They Are A-Changin’

According to the Bureau of Labor and Statistics, in 2015, slightly over three of every four workers were Caucasian; 12 percent were African American; and the balance were Latinos and Asians. Over the next few decades, however, there will be demographic shifts and Caucasians will be in the minority, surpassed by Latinos and other people of color. What will this mean for the workplace in terms of cultural and social behavior? As international business continues expanding, there will need for greater understanding of customs, language and body language. Much more will have to be done for those who have to operate in the US – even though English may be their second language. These professionals will be part of the decision making process. While foreign language was a prerequisite for graduating high school and probably still required in the undergraduate level here in the US, companies will be looking for candidates who are multi-lingual.

Corporate communication divisions will have to be more sensitive in their internal and external messaging. That is a given. But what about human interaction? How about the company’s or firm’s onboarding process. There is the misguided assumption that everyone has access to mainstream knowledge. Not even close. And consider that nothing arouses discomfort more than colloquial-speak without offering any clarification.

Proper use of language is as important a component of etiquette as behavior. While manners are displayed, using language that is (or is perceived to be) offensive is a breach of etiquette. The challenge of proper use of language exists in its subtle nature. What may be an acceptable norm to one person can be insulting to another.

For younger professionals who will be increasingly involved in cross-border work, it would help to get reference books or guides to inform you of the dos and don’ts in both business and personal settings.

It will help your counterparts, clients, customers and associates feel more comfortable and more trusting in doing business with you. The more familiar you become with customs and practices the more empathetic and open-minded you become.

So if you are disdainful of the concept of political correctness, then just think of it as common courtesy.


About Steve

Steven Sacks is the CEO of Solutions to Results, LLC, a consultancy that specializes in helping individuals, firms and organizations meet the challenges of communicating with clarity and purpose. Visit his website at www.solutions2results.com.