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.

Thinking out loud

stenoI’m really struggling with a project at work. Actually, the project itself is pretty straightforward; the problem is finding a common language with my work partner. Frankly, the situation has been really frustrating me. As much as I KNOW the effects language can have on a person, I’m not immune to them. I find it hard to overlook certain word choices when they are pointed in my direction. Words matter.

So there’s that.

There’s also the issue of asking for information one way and receiving it in a completely different–winding and muddled–format. I find myself wading through a pile of words that I have to struggle to understand, let alone organize. Words matter.

So there’s that, too.

I don’t want to sort this stuff out; I want it to be easy. (Don’t we all?) But then, isn’t this what I say I’m good at? Isn’t this what I do? Isn’t it my job to pull in information and figure out not only what matters but also how to communicate it back to others?

Well, crap. Why do I always forget that challenges are generally opportunities in disguise?

I’ll fix it. I’ll make it sound good. It’s what I do. And you know what? I love it.

Thanks for letting me think this out on your screen. That’s what I do, too.

Take care

Aunt Gladys circa 1972When I was very small, my great-great aunt went to live with my grandmother. Aunt Gladys (unconventionally pronounced  GLAY-dus) would follow my brother and me around and we didn’t mind a bit because she never hesitated to join our games. She played with us unhesitatingly until the dark cloud of her dementia overshadowed the sunny side of her personality.

And that’s why she lived with my grandmother. Grandma was her caretaker–at least, that’s what we would have called her then. She fed Aunt Gladys and bathed her and tucked her in bed at night. Grandma kept AG safe and made sure she knew she was loved. She took care of Aunt Gladys.

Taking care. That term sounds so…detached.

It says nothing of the emotion my grandmother’s actions carried, the love and devotion that washed Aunt Gladys’s face or the tender care that removed obstacles so she wouldn’t fall. It ignores the sacrifice of unexpectedly rearranging a household to make sure a loved one won’t suffer alone in her time of need, or of stretching a threadbare budget to make room for one more.

Sounds a lot more like giving than taking to me.

Perhaps that’s why, somewhere along the way, we’ve embraced a shift in terminology. People we once called caretakers have become caregivers. Technically, both words carry the same meaning, but at least for me, the former screams duty while the latter emanates devotion.

I love how our vernacular keeps evolving to perfect itself. It amazes me how one little word–or portion of a word–makes all the difference to its meaning. And even if you give it little thought, your choice affects the perception of your listener.

Words matter; always choose wisely.

One little word

red squareYears ago, I often brown bagged my lunch and ate in the office canteen. A few of us eventually found ourselves eating together more often than not, and we got to know each other through conversation. One of my lunch buddies, who later became a good friend, was a woman who had emigrated from Russia. Her English was outstanding, and if her accent hadn’t given her away, no one would have been able to discern her nationality from her command of the language.

Most of the time.

In one of our lunch sessions, another colleague asked my friend about her husband. Somewhere along the line, the colleague asked how the two had met, and my Russian friend breezily answered, “Oh, at the wedding.”

We all sat in stunned silence for a few seconds. Finally someone piped up, “Was it an arranged marriage?”

“No, no, no!” my friend exclaimed after her grammatical foible became clear. “We met at someone else’s wedding!”

And there you have it: the power of one little word. Even a word as simple as the can make a big difference to the meaning a speaker is trying to convey.

You see, the Russian language doesn’t employ the use of articles. In fact, it doesn’t even have them. There’s no translation for words like a, an, and the. My friend, who did a bang-up job with our language, knew she needed to put one in her sentence, but she grabbed the wrong one. She chose the definite article (the) instead of the indefinite article (a), and consequently implied that she and her husband had met at their own wedding.

After she clarified, we all laughed at visions of a stoic Russian bride and groom shaking hands on the steps of some imposing Soviet-era building before heading inside to tie the knot. We should have known better.

This story still makes me chuckle, but it also serves as a powerful reminder of the power of words. Choose wisely, my friends. Not every misstep will leave people laughing.