Words Matter


We live in an increasingly diverse world, and at the same time it seems we have become increasingly intolerant. The more you look for signs of both, the more you will find it. Some say we need to simply stop looking so hard; I say we need to start looking harder.

Diversity is part of my core; I work hard to create diversity in my Vistage groups and in my personal life. I find people who are different from me interesting. I learn more from people who see the world differently from me than I do from those who see it the same. And, I find, for much the same reasons, diversity in a peer group creates a higher functioning group. When everyone is thinking and saying something different, the member has a richer experience, a richer opportunity to come to his or her own decisions.

So what does this have to do with words? We have a choice. We can work hard to live our lives surrounded by people who are exactly like us, listen to news that supports our way of thinking, and insulate ourselves from anyone and anything that isn’t aligned with our way of thinking and how we see the world.

Or, we can live in the world as it is, a mosaic of differences.

If we choose the former, we need only choose words that are in common usage in the community we align with. If on the other hand, we choose the latter, then words matter. Whether it’s that awful racist video from the SAE fraternity bus; or hurtful statements about Muslims based on the actions of Middle East countries; or simply making comments that are disrespectful; what is heard by the listener is what matters.

Sometimes the words can seem innocuous, and harmless. Expressions like “open the kimono” to some is simply a colorful way to describe being transparent. Others call it sexist and racist. Forbes included “open the kimono” in its “Most Annoying Business Jargon” bracket, wherein Bruce Barry, a professor at Vanderbilt University’s Owen School of Business, calls it “kind of creepy.”

Words matter in a diverse world, because if we want to be heard, we must speak in a manner that allows us to be heard. Words that are heard as inflammatory, cause the listener to stop listening and hear only the disrespect.

In short, if you want to be heard, choose words that allow the full mosaic of listeners to hear you.

Elisa K. Spain