Of all the buzzwords and jargon that plague us at work – from the awkward, such as “disintermediation” (taking out the middleman), to the wicked, such as “leveraging knowledge capital” (stealing someone else’s ideas) – perhaps the most broadly used and widely despised is “politically correct.”
It’s a smug little phrase that’s applied to everything from cultural sensitivity to downright lies. But no matter what it refers to, the term “political correctness” makes people cringe, and those who talk about it are judged ironic at best and moronic at worst.
The history of political correctness has decidedly authoritarian undertones (it reportedly has roots in Marxism, Maoism and the British Ministry of Information) which helps explain its darker, double-speak side. More recently, of course, the PC movement has incorporated a fuzzy overhaul of the language, and now we’re left with a bunch of terms that leave some of us laughing, some of us crying and too few of us making sense.
What did we gain, for example, from the change from “disabled” to “differently abled” or the semi-serious proposal that some people should be known as “vertically challenged”?
The general idea behind politically correct language is that we take a word or phrase that might be considered limiting or offensive, remove the negative part and replace it with something no one could find fault with. That’s how “old people” (let’s not label them with one age-related aspect) becomes “seniors,” and that’s how “chairman” (let’s not assume it’s always a man) becomes “chair.”
But the ridiculous side of PC is that all this re-jiggering of words often leads to a bunch of phrases that don’t mean much. If you’re vertically challenged, for example, are you too short? Too tall? Perhaps you’re afraid of heights?
Plenty of terms have been touched with the PC wand just for fun: A list at Bored.com, for example, includes “bovine control officer” for “cowboy,” “unaffiliated applicant for private-sector funding” for “panhandler” and “differently logical” for “wrong.” If you’re referring to dishonest people, you might call them “ethically challenged”; and if you’re thinking of accusing someone of plagiarism, you might simply note that they’re working with “previously owned prose.”
But the humor behind PC terms is in the eye of the beholder. In the workplace, where political correctness is supposed to make everyone feel valued and heard, it often gets in the way, instead. Not only are people confused about which terms to use and what people are trying not to say; they’re also afraid they’ll get in trouble if they speak up – and slip.
The solution to all this madness, of course – the absurd and meaningless phrases, the constant fear of the PC police – is simple common sense. Say what you mean, politely. Don’t put undue focus on other people’s differences, drawbacks or flaws. Don’t jump down anybody’s throat for using an unpopular phrase.
And don’t forget to laugh. After all, you wouldn’t want to be accused of being “amusement avoidant” or a “humor non-participant.” Or a PC stick in the mud.