Word Police


The biggest complaint I had about my job in Human Resources was being the word police.

I believe that language is fluid, dynamic, and subjective. In my experience, no two people use the same word and have the same exact understanding of the meaning.

  • You say the word tree and—while it’s not important—you envision a stately oak tree in your mind.
  • I hear the word tree and I think about a beautiful ash tree.

We both understand the concept of a tree, but we interpret and imagine the word based on our experiences, values, and our cultural perspectives.

And that’s awesome. I don’t want to get in the way of this process. Language is so nuanced and complicated and yet we’re able to communicate with one another—for the most part—without conflict or tension. And when there is tension & conflict, it’s interesting. I don’t mind it.

That’s part of the reason why I’m no longer in HR.

Now there are situations where people must agree upon language before a task can be completed. A doctor, an anesthesiologist, and a team of nurses can’t hop into an operating theater and treat a patient without having agreed upon the absolute meaning of certain words. Medical professionals are trained (as best we can train them) to speak with precision, clarity, and absolute definition — but miscommunication and error still happen. A right hand is amputated rather than a left hand. Incorrect medication is administered. A patient undergoes a tonsillectomy when he really needs an appendectomy.

This happens over and over again in hospitals despite rigorous training and quality programs. And this happens in our own lives in both small and large ways. No matter how precise we are with our language, there are gaps between what we say, what we mean, and how our language is interpreted. Those gaps can cause tension and confusion—but they can also cause great works of art and literature. And TV. Look at how many sitcoms are based on a simple pattern of miscommunication. Without tension in our language, there would be no Big Bang Theory or Two and a half Men.

So I bristle when Human Resources professionals impose a set of values on words that may or may not carry the same meaning for employees. Are there words in the English language that are offensive to most people? Of course. Word such as retard and faggot come to mind. I respect when people are offended by the power of words, but I don’t think language has absolute meaning. More importantly, I don’t believe that words are evil. Our culture makes certain words more acceptable than others, and in the end, it’s people who utter those words who are evil or not.

I think adults should fight bigotry and racism, but I still think the right way to deal with obscenity and vulgarity is through a conversation, a call for clarification, and an assumption that most people are just ill-informed and not intentionally cruel.

And it’s not the job of your local Human Resources rep to educate your dimwitted colleagues on what words are right and wrong. If you hear someone say something stupid or offensive, fix it.

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