Us and them

In one of my former jobs, I led a team of people serving all departments in the company. We were responsible for global branding, identity management, and creative services, among other things. My reporting structure was at the corporate level, which made a ton of sense given our charter to serve everyone.

At one point, company politics changed that dynamic, and for a period of time I reported through one of our divisions. That wasn’t supposed to change anything my department handled (and it didn’t), but other divisions panicked. They no longer viewed my department as neutral and assumed we would give priority to our reporting division. I had been working pretty hard to build credibility with the panicked division before the change, and in one fell swoop it disintegrated.

So we started over.

Although we worked really hard to change their perception, I still felt a rift. There was an “us and them” feel to our interactions, and eventually I realized it had found its way into our language. The division liaison who worked with us—great guy, btw—would talk about my group as if we were part of the division where I reported. In turn, my team responded accordingly. WE do this. YOU could try that. And so on. The very language we used started to separate us from the beginning of any conversation.

That’s when I became the language police. To the amusement and often irritation of my team, I would stop people mid-sentence in meetings to remind them that we worked for everyone, so we were part of everyone’s “we.” Instead of aligning ourselves with one division, albeit unconsciously, we made the verbal effort to be inclusive. I earned my share of eye rolls, but I can’t count how many times I said things like, There’s no THEY here. We’re all the same WE.

Eventually our relationship with that division improved. By the time my reporting structure was moved back where it belonged in the corporate chain, we enjoyed working with that division more than any other. I credit the power of language for helping us get on the right track.

I think about this situation a lot amid our current political climate. So much of what I hear from people around me, in the news, on social media—everywhere, really—comes with an overpowering dose of “us and them.” The Dems do this! The Rs do that! Liberals! Evangelicals! You! We!

Stop it, everyone. Just stop. Take a minute and think about who will listen to what follows when the very beginning of whatever you have to say draws a line in the sand. Are you on MY side or THE OTHER side?

Don’t get me wrong; I have some very strong beliefs about what needs to happen in this country. I will neither present nor debate them in this post; I want to stay on point and not lose anyone’s attention because of a particular issue. I’m trying to illustrate that the language we use powerfully affects our ability to have meaningful conversations with each other.

So here’s the thing. Let’s stop making broad categorizations that immediately define US and THEM when we’re trying to talk to one another. Even if I generally identify with a particular group, I guarantee I don’t espouse every single belief of that group—and I doubt you do either. So let’s stop identifying each other as “uses and thems.” Let’s stop telling each other why the other person is wrong. Let’s focus on sharing what we believe and why—and LISTEN when others are doing the same.

This is hard stuff. I know what I believe and why I believe it; why waste my time listening to opposing views? My answer boils down to this: what we’re doing now clearly isn’t working. The vitriol that surrounds us every day is staggering. No one is blameless on this.

It’s time to have conversations rather than posturing for battle, and it starts with watching our language.

Words matter.

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