More Than Ever, We Have to Choose Our Words Carefully
How some advocates are going too far
Ric Edelman: It's Monday, February 13th. I've got a difficult conversation to have with you today. Difficult because it's a touchy subject and I need to choose my words very carefully. I was giving a presentation last week on crypto, and in the Q&A session of the conversation I was asked about NFTs and the fact that last year it appeared that NFTs were in a huge bubble and the bubble burst. The prices of Non-fungible tokens collapsed last year. We know that crypto overall did that - with Bitcoin down over 70%. And the person asking the question said therefore are NFTs over? Is this just a bubble? And was it a fling and a fad and it's gone?
I made the observation that no, although true, the bubble burst, the technology underlying this whole concept is very much alive and well and reflects the dynamics of a new emerging marketplace. I then made the observation that this is kind of similar to pioneers. As they ended up getting shot with arrows, they were then followed by settlers who built cities. My point being that the person who shows up first doesn't always succeed, but they are often followed by those who do.
Another individual in the Q&A raised her hand and she said, “I don't have a question, but I do have a comment. As someone of Indigenous descent here in the U.S., I found your response hurtful.” I immediately apologized for my insensitivity and the session continued. And it struck me I didn't need to use the analogy that I used, and it hadn't occurred to me that it would be offensive. And clearly it was.
It reminded me of comments that I had made probably 20 or 25 years ago. I was doing a seminar on estate planning and I was talking about the fact that in our will and trusts and legal documents regarding who we're going to leave our assets to, that it's not always helpful to leave all of your money to your children equally because your different children have different circumstances. You might have a child who has a drug or alcohol problem or who's a spendthrift or who is in a troubled marriage themselves. And I made the question kind of in a joking way, “Hey, is there a black sheep in the family?”
Well, at the end of that seminar, a gentleman came up to me - who is black, and he said, 'Your reference to black sheep is an offensive term'. And I thought about what he had said. I was caught very much off guard. It hadn't occurred to me and I realized, Yeah, I can certainly see how you feel that way. And I realized I can change my language. I didn't have to refer to difficult children as a black sheep in the family and in future seminars.
I changed the phrase to "problem child", which always gets a laugh, frankly, a bigger laugh than the phrase "black sheep". And I realized I didn't have to use a phrase that people might feel was offensive. I could use a more innocuous, friendly and rather funny way to communicate my message.
And as I thought about my metaphor of pioneers and settlers, I realized there's a different way I can get that point across. I can refer to the fact that it's the second mouse who gets the cheese. Pretty much accomplishes the same goal, doesn't it, of getting the point across? There is no question that we must be careful with the language that we use. And today, more than ever before, frankly, we should have always behaved this way, being careful of the words we use. And shame on us for not having done so. Shame on me. This is long overdue.
The challenge for me, anyway, is keeping this constantly in mind, recognizing that I might use a phrase with innocent intent, not realizing, though, that it's a phrase somebody might think is offensive or a phrase that most people maybe never considered to be offensive. But now everybody does.
And word meaning changes. I remember growing up and using the word "gay". That meant happy when I was a kid. Remember the "gay 90s"? Well, clearly the meaning of the term gay has evolved. And today, if you use the word gay, it's got a whole new meaning compared to 40 or 100 years ago. That's perfectly fine. Unless you don't know that there's a new meaning. If you use a word and it's old context, you'll get blasted by people who are thinking about the new current context.
I think we're all trying here. We need to be inclusive. We need to be respectful. We all get that. At least I hope we do. But as a public figure, I'm on stage, I do these podcasts, I'm interviewed on TV and radio all the time in magazines and newspapers. I live in fear every day that I'm going to say something that offends someone. I don't have a racist or bigoted or biased bone in my body. That doesn't matter. If I use a phrase or a word that somebody might construe as racist or bigoted or biased, then I'm toast. A lifetime of career, of building my reputation is gone in an instant. That scares me to death.
And here's what makes the whole situation worse. Sometimes these days I find that people are going out of their way to be offended. They're assuming bad intent instead of realizing that the speaker grew up in a different era and a different culture. They might not simply realize that what they're saying today is wrong. So I'd ask instead of saying "I'm offended", say, "hey, you know, these days that's considered offensive".
Maybe that's a meaningless difference. But I think we need to help each other improve. And there are a lot of people trying to help everyone improve. But the situation is starting to get out of control. Last week, the Associated Press caused an uproar when it updated the Associated Press Stylebook. I grew up on that book. It was required reading in all my journalism classes in college, and I can pretty much recite every aspect of it. When do you capitalize a word? When do you use a comma or a colon, an Em Dash (—) instead of an En Dash (–)? When are abbreviations OK? The AP stylebook is the Bible of journalism. Pretty much every reporter and newspaper in the country relies on it.
Well, the Associated Press just updated the stylebook and recognizing the new focus on harmful and hurtful language these days, the Associated Press said the following, "We recommend avoiding general and often dehumanizing the labels such as the poor, the mentally ill, the French, the disabled, the college educated." The French. Well, guess who got offended? The French people who live in France complained about this. They noted that they were placed between the mentally ill and the disabled. The French Embassy in Washington issued a tweet in response to the AP Stylebook revision, and they say that they've renamed themselves the Embassy of Frenchness. Yes, they were being sarcastic. The Embassy's spokesman said, and I quote, "I mean, really". Yeah.
One guy tweeted that his favorite movie is now The Connection...with Frenchness. Remember The French Connection? Another said he really likes fries with a touch of Frenchness. The Associated Press's tweet got 23 million views, 18,000 retweets, avalanches of mockery. It didn't take long for the Associated Press to cancel its revision. They still haven't explained how writing "the college educated" is dehumanizing. How could anyone say the French is nothing but a label? It's simply who they are. And why did the AP decide to highlight the French instead of the British or the Swiss or the Canadians or whoever? Why pick on the French? By the way, the AP is not alone in trying to get us to stop using offensive language.
At Stanford University, they created the Elimination of Harmful Language Initiative. It's a multiyear project, and their goal is to eliminate racist, violent and biased language, including disability bias, ethnic bias, ethnic slurs, gender bias, implicit bias, and sexual bias. Stanford published a 13-page list, 150 words and phrases that they say you must not use.
Stanford sorted those 150 words into 10 categories. Ableist language, which is language offensive to people who live with disabilities. Ageist language, which singles out people based on their age instead of their qualifications. Colonialism, which is the practice of acquiring political control over another country by occupying it with settlers and exploiting it economically. That's the mistake I made when I talked about pioneers and settlers.
Culturally appropriated language, which takes terms that are meaningful to a particular culture but uses them in a disrespectful way. Gender-based language, which are words and phrases that are exclusionary. Imprecise language, euphemisms, vague phrases, inaccurate words that don't say what you're trying to say. Institutionalized racism, words that are embedded in laws and regulations that perpetuate prejudice, ignorance, thoughtlessness and racist stereotyping. First person language, which defines others by a single characteristic or experience. And violent language, which uses imagery that may be upsetting to others.
Let me give you some examples of what Stanford says we should not say. Don't say addict or addicted. Instead, refer to a person with a substance use disorder. Otherwise, Stanford says, you're trivializing people who have substance abuse issues. Don't say blind study that perpetuates the notion that disability is abnormal. Don't say mentally ill refer to a person living with a mental health condition. Don't say paraplegic or quadriplegic. Refer to a person with a spinal cord injury. Don't say quick meeting or walk-in. That trivializes people with a disability. Don't say 'bury the hatchet'. That's a cultural appropriation.
According to Stanford, some North American indigenous peoples buried their tools of war as a symbol of peace. But it's a cultural appropriation. According to Stanford, and only certain North American indigenous peoples are allowed to say, bury the hatchet. If you're not one of those North American indigenous peoples, you can't use the phrase. And don't say Chief, guru, powwow, too many Chiefs, not enough Indians or tribe.
Don't say congressmen, Congresswoman or congressperson, say legislator. Otherwise you're lumping a group of people together using gender binary language, which doesn't include everyone. I think most of us know we're not supposed to say firemen or policemen or mailmen, but now we can't say firefighter, police officer or letter carrier either, because again, those phrases are gender, binary language, which doesn't include everyone. And don't say man, guys, he/she, ladies, mankind, manpower, manmade or property owner.
Property owner? Stanford says this lumps together a group of people using - you guessed it, gender binary language. And you've got a kid going to college? Don't say freshman. Say first-year student. Don't say survivor. Refer to the person who has experienced whatever it is they survived. Don't say master, say primary. And that means you can't say webmaster anymore. It's now web product owner, although frankly, I think the owner of the company might have an issue with that. Don't say convict or prisoner. Refer to the person who is incarcerated.
Don't say homeless person. Say person without housing. Don't say immigrant. It's a person who has immigrated. Don't say prostitute. It's a person who engages in sex work. Don't say abusive relationship. It's a person in a relationship with an abusive person. Don't say: beating a dead horse, killing two birds with one stone or more than one way to skin a cat, Pull the trigger, rule of thumb, take a shot at it, give it a go. War room, whip into shape, Hip, hip, hooray! Hold down the fort. Long time, no see. All of those are violent phrases, according to Stanford.
And perhaps the most startling of all, Stanford says don't use the word American, say US citizen. Stanford says the term American insinuates that the US is the most important country in the Americas, which is actually made up of 42 countries. Now think about this. Telling everyone you can't say American or immigrant or grandfather? Saying that referring to someone as brave is wrong? That's what Stanford says.
Stanford has now gotten so much criticism about this list, it has pulled the list. You won't even find it anymore on its website. Well, it was a noble effort. Can I say noble? But really, Stanford went too far. And although Stanford and the Associated Press have both pulled their lists, they're not alone in trying to get us to change our language. The University of Texas, the University of San Francisco, Brandeis and other colleges are all trying to deal with this.
It's a good idea because we all do need to be careful, but we need to make sure we're not getting carried away. All I ask is that we don't take offense when none is intended. I mean, we're going to be called offensive because we shout hip, hip, hooray? Stanford said that was a rallying cry used by the Nazis during the Holocaust.
Did you know that? I didn't. Neither did Josh Yuter. He's a rabbi, and he was named one of the top 10 Jewish influencers in the US. He said, "Until I read Stanford's list, I had no idea that “hip, hip, hooray” was a German rallying cry during the Holocaust, and I suspect few others would know that as well. I'd be very surprised if hip, hip, hooray merits inclusion as being harmful in any way, and it stands to reason that harmful language can evolve and become innocuous". That's Rabbi Josh Yuter.
And yes, that's my point as well. A term we use today that was never offensive might today be offensive, but equally so, terms that used to be offensive might today not be offensive. We can't live in the past. Just because it was bad in the past doesn't mean it's still got to be bad today. Nazis used hip, hip, hooray. So what? Nobody today would make that association when they're celebrating somebody's achievement. So can we just please chill a little?
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 stop this path we're on, nobody will be willing to say anything to anybody out of fear they're going to be criticized for being offensive. Can I say nobody and anybody? Or are those offensive terms these days? If I've offended you today, please accept my apology. I'd tell you to take a hike, but I don't want to offend mountain climbers or rather, people who sometimes climb mountains.
Advisors: Keep your language in mind with clients
In all seriousness, we need to realize that words matter, and people more than ever are being vocal when they're offended. If you're a financial advisor, keep your language in mind when you're talking with a client, especially a new client in a first-time conversation. Be very careful about the words you use, or you could lose a client. At the same time, though, if you come upon someone who quickly gets offended at the slightest remark, 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?
In today's society, we must all be careful. We must be careful not to offend. But we must also not allow ourselves to be held to an unreasonable standard that no one could possibly achieve. And as clients, same thing. If your advisor consistently displays behaviors you find objectionable, you have a duty to tell them and request that they stop. If they can't or won't change their ways, find a new advisor. There are plenty of good “gu...” (guys)… There are plenty of good “peop...” (people)… There are plenty of good advisors out there. And we're all trying hard. I don't know about you, but I'm exhausted.