What Our Colleagues Hear in 'Political Correctness'

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The debate over public language is as old as language itself, but over the last few decades, a new term has come to define it. Political correctness changes meaning depending on how one says it, from disdain to retrenchment. More often than not, using the term also says a lot about the speaker — and it can tell us how others around them see it.

Researchers at the University of California, Berkeley, have just released a study on what conclusions observers draw about those who use politically incorrect phrases or terminology. This can include anything from using slurs or demeaning words for groups and individuals to describing current events or opinions with certain words over others ("undocumented people" versus "illegal immigrants," for example).

One word regarding politically incorrect speech came up consistently from study participants across the ideological spectrum: authentic. Participants also believed they could more accurately assume a politically incorrect person's other views — and that such a person is actually colder, less persuadable, and less willing to engage in dialogue. Despite social stereotypes, the researchers also note that every group internally polices ideas and word choice, making the issue essentially panpartisan.

Public language, including and perhaps especially at the workplace, is ultimately about more than signaling something about yourself. As the British author Neil Gaiman puts it, "I started imagining a world in which we replaced the phrase 'politically correct' wherever we could with 'treating other people with respect,' and it made me smile." In 2015, a Chrome browser extension did just that. How we talk matters, and affording everyone respect lets colleagues get on with the business of doing work.