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Practice Management > Marketing and Communications

The War on Offensive Language Has Gone Too Far (Can I Still Say ‘War’?)

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At a recent consulting gig, an audience member noted that nonfungible token prices have collapsed, and asked if this was nothing more than a fad, which is now dead.

I replied that, while NFTs certainly experienced a classic bubble, the underlying technology is alive and well — and that adoption is expanding at a rapid pace. I then added, “Let’s remember that pioneers were shot with arrows, but the settlers who followed them built cities.”

My point was that those who are first don’t always succeed, but they are often followed by those who do.

My remark caused another member of the audience to raise her hand and say, “I don’t have a question, but I do have a comment. As someone of Indigenous descent in the U.S., I found your response hurtful.”

I immediately apologized for my insensitivity and the session continued.

Clearly, I didn’t need to use that analogy, and shame on me for not realizing that it was offensive. After thinking about it further, I realized there’s a different way I can get that point across, by saying “It’s the second mouse that gets the cheese.” I can make my point without the risk of offending anyone.

More than ever, we must be careful with our language. (Frankly, we always should have been.)

As advisors, we routinely find ourselves conversing with people we don’t know well — prospects, new clients in a first-time meeting, attendees at a seminar, and so on. We must realize that we might use a phrase that, despite our innocent intent, is offensive.

Compounding the challenge is the fact that word meanings change. When I was growing up, the word “gay” meant “happy.” Remember the Flintstones?

When you’re with the Flintstones

Have a yabba-dabba-doo time

A dabba-doo time

We’ll have a gay old time

Today, of course, the word has a new meaning. That’s perfectly fine — unless you don’t know that its proper usage has changed. Use the word in its old context, and you’ll get criticized. Or worse: you might lose business, or even your livelihood.

Yes, we certainly need to avoid offensive language. But it’s becoming increasingly difficult to avoid offending people — because rules are being created that seem designed to cause us to fail.

The Associated Press recently caused an uproar when it tweeted, “We recommend avoiding general and often dehumanizing ‘the’ labels such as the poor, the mentally ill, the French, the disabled, the college educated.”

The tweet was met with 23 million views and widespread mockery, and the suggestion that “the French” was a dehumanizing label was quickly withdrawn.

But the AP isn’t alone. Stanford University created the Elimination of Harmful Language Initiative, citing 150 words and phrases to avoid. These include:

  • addict or addicted
  • mentally ill
  • paraplegic or quadriplegic
  • stand-up meeting or walk-in
  • bury the hatchet
  • tribe
  • congressman, congresswoman
  • fireman, policeman, mailman, landlord
  • chief
  • guru
  • homeless person
  • immigrant
  • prostitute
  • abusive relationship
  • beating a dead horse
  • killing two birds with one stone
  • more than one way to skin a cat
  • pull the trigger
  • rule of thumb
  • take a shot at it
  • war room
  • whip into shape
  • Hip, hip, hooray!
  • hold down the fort
  • long time, no see
  • brave
  • American

Stanford’s experience matched that of The Associated Press. The university got so much criticism that it removed the list from its website.

Sure, we all need to be careful with our words, but we shouldn’t get carried away (can I say carried away?) with this. I mean, it’s offensive to call someone an American or shout Hip, Hip, Hooray?

Yeah, we’ve got to stop using offensive language. But we’ve also got to stop looking for opportunities to be offended. If we don’t alter this path, nobody will be willing to say anything to anybody out of fear they’re going to be labeled as offensive.

All financial advisors must be careful about the words you use, or you could lose a client. At the same time, though, if you come upon someone who easily gets offended at works or phrases that reasonable people would consider innocuous, well, imagine how they’ll react if you make a mistake that causes them to lose money. Are you sure you want that person as a client?

Yes, we must be careful not to offend. But we also must not allow ourselves to be held to an unreasonable standard that no one could possibly achieve.

If I’ve offended you today, please accept my apology. I might be inclined to tell you to take a hike, but I don’t want to offend people who sometimes climb mountains.

Ric Edelman is an author and founder of RIA Edelman Financial Engines (earlier Edelman Financial Services). He now leads the Digital Assets Council of Financial Professionals, or DACFP, which recently formed a strategic partnership with the Financial Planning Association to provide educational programming and content to help FPA members understand the complexities of cryptocurrencies and how these issues can affect their clients’ financial plans.


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