Back in 1995 Margaret Doyle published The A-Z of Non-sexist Language (Women’s Press Handbook). It was a genuine attempt to give people alternatives to potentially sexist terms when talking together or writing. It suggested ‘original’ as an alternative to ‘master’ copy, and other eminently sensible and useful alternatives to enhance our personal thesauruses. I thought we were on the cusp of an age of dialogue about what to say, but instead what has followed is a rolling campaign of what not to say – political correctness in short. Margaret’s intention was honorable and pragmatic. I am sure we would all like generally to be ‘correct’ about what we say and not offend one another.
Political correctness as a term is now mainly associated with highlighting what not to say, rather than what to say, or what to do if you’re not sure what to say.
In the workplace, rights-based policies on dignity at work have raised expectations of people who are on the receiving end of ‘politically incorrect’ language and behavior, for example banter. Employees think they are protected from offensive remarks. But a report from business insurer Hiscox questioned 248 UK SME bosses and 1,000 UK workers about behaviour in the workplace. And comparing the responses revealed a considerable gap in attitudes between bosses and employees towards office ‘antics’ and banter.
Seven in ten of the SME bosses surveyed said they are ‘unconcerned’ about the threat of legal action. However, more than half (55%) of the employees surveyed claimed they would consider legal action as a means of conflict resolution if they considered that office behaviour had ‘crossed the line’.
This suggests that there is no consensus about what is ‘correct’ or who is responsible for challenging or setting the tone.
What do you do when involved in or on the edge of banter that you think is crossing the line between acceptable and unacceptable? If you intervene are you likely to be seen as a politically correct killjoy? Or should we just be grown up about it – after all, it’s only a joke?