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Business Casual: The Ear Of The Beholder

Fortunately, the “Honey, would you get me some coffee?” era is pretty much over by now, a thing of the past in the nation’s workplaces, with the exception of a few aging and clueless practitioners who still insist that addressing women they are neither related to nor married to as “Honey” is a compliment. (It isn’t.) And that being served coffee is a gender-specific entitlement. (It isn’t.)

And, equally fortunately, only the least enlightened employers hire “girls” to work in their offices or factories. Unless the worker is 13, in which case there are likely child labor laws being violated, the appropriate term for a female in the workforce is “woman.”

A 50-year-old female does not consider “girl” a compliment, no matter what the speaker’s intent. The fact that she may not feel comfortable speaking up does not indicate that she is flattered.

Times change, and so does language – sometimes slowly, sometimes with lightning-strike speed. Women have been in the workforce for a long time, but it took a much longer time for the terminology to catch up. Workmen’s Compensation insurance only became Workers Compensation late in the 20th century.

Recently, though, words and their meanings and connotations seem to change almost overnight – thanks largely to social media and other technological advances.

Take the word “thug,” the subject of much current debate. Does it no longer simply indicate a person who commits crimes, but rather a black man who commits crimes or looks as though he might? Has it become a convenient code word, a way to hurl an insult at an individual or group, then protest there was no intent to be racist?

Maybe, maybe not. But it’s a word that I am trying to erase from my vocabulary. In the last several months, during the course of coverage and conversation about the deaths of several African-American males at the hands of police officers – from Ferguson to DeKalb County to Baltimore – “thug” has become the word that people use to describe black men whom they want to cast in an unfavorable light, whether justly or unjustly.

I have no affinity for people who wantonly destroy property and start riots, but there are other words available to describe them, whatever the color of their skin. “Thug” is simply not a word I am comfortable using anymore. I am not, however, in the business of advising the African-American president of the United States or the mayor of Baltimore about word choice. Both of them have used the word “thugs” to describe some of the rioters; the mayor later apologized.

For myself, it no longer matters whether I mean to be provocative or insensitive; the t-word is offensive to enough ears of enough beholders to render it useless. At the most pragmatic level, it’s distracting: A reader or listener has to pause and determine whether I simply mean “criminal” or whether I mean to inject a racial subtext.

No matter how much you want a once-useful word to be available to you, you can’t ignore how its meaning is changing and how it affects those who feel its sting.

I don’t personally know what it feels like to be called “thug” because of my age and skin color, but I sure do know what it’s like to be 30 or 40 and referred to as “the girl” by an old guy who insists he means no offense.

Some like to roll their eyes and bemoan the scourge of “political correctness” and resist any challenge to their word selection. But many words and phrases go out of common usage because they ought to.

Before the Civil Rights Movement, “colored people” was considered a polite term – witness the name of the NAACP; but the phrase has gone away.  Consider, too, how language has evolved around terms relating to sexual orientation, around individuals with disabilities, around ethnic groups. Even terms like “redneck” or “white trash” are generally understood to be insulting.

It’s a matter of sensitivity, but also accuracy. Communication is a two-way street. What you mean is an important part of what you say or write; but so is what your audience or reader perceives.

I’d like to think “thug” is on the way out, to be moth-balled for a couple of generations. Maybe it can join the girls for coffee.

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