We all understand that language is important in our lives, but sometimes we don’t realize how important it is. I was on an HR panel recently, where we received a question about tactical things that we can do to change the culture. One of the answers came from a Canadian, who focused on language change in his corporation. He explained how, since they are a bilingual country, he made a change, from the top, that everything in his company would be published in both English and French.
There were two important parts to this story. First, he realized that this was important to his employees because he asked them. Secondly, he accepted the fact that this might slow down some operations once in a while, and they might have to wait to move forward on some things until documents could be properly translated—he was willing to accept that. The end result was two things: firstly, it wasn’t nearly as disruptive as anyone expected that it would be, and secondly, it made the French speaking employees feel much more welcome at work. Many of them likely hadn’t even realized how important it would be to them, until it was done.
In Washington State, we experienced a similar surprising find when the Governor’s Military Transition council, an organization set up to help veterans and military spouses find their place in the civilian workforce AND to build happy lives, did a survey amongst military spouses. They were trying to solve the problem that this demographic was facing—namely that we are the most over-educated and underemployed demographic group in the country. They survey wanted to know what things bothered this community the most, so that the council could begin to draft legislation, create programs and other initiatives to address their concerns. One of the findings was quite surprising—it seemed like such a little thing.
The response from a large number of spouses included that ‘we are so, so tired of constantly being referred to as “and spouse”. What nobody had realized, until that survey, was that, in an effort to make veteran programs inclusive to spouses, they’d neglected to check with the spouses about how they felt about always coming in second. You see, while the word ‘and’ might seem like a tiny thing, it underlines something important about the current culture for military spouses—namely, that they are always, ALWAYS expected to put themselves second. In this case, a simple switch of some language, of people taking the time to remember to say “spouses and veterans” as often as they say it the other way, made a huge difference to how those of us in the community feel about our invitation to use these programs.
Human beings fight change, it’s a normal part of being human. While it’s understandable, we should always strive to understand why the change is important, and what cultural norms our choices of words might be unwittingly reinforcing. This discussion is nowhere stronger than in communities and countries that speak gendered languages. In most Latin languages, for example, every noun (and the corresponding verb) has acquired a gender—something is either male, female, or neutral. On top of this, whenever something is a mixed group, like girl AND guy friends, the default is male. We say ‘amigos’ for a group of male friends, ‘amigas’ for a group of female friends, but ‘amigos’ for a mixed group. For those who might think that English speakers have avoided this gendering of language—think again. One only has to examine the use of the word ‘guys’, ubiquitous when referring to mixed groups, to see that we are not that far off.
All this being said, I’ve always loved to focus on the things that we can learn from small children about complex, ‘adult’ topics such as culture or leadership. As you may know, I raise my daughter in 3 Latin-based languages—Portuguese, Spanish and English. It’s been a pretty amazing journey, and has taught me a lot about culture, vulnerability and life. Most recently, as she’s nearing the age of four, she’s pretty focused on getting her words right—and man does she love to talk. The interesting thing is the way that she simplifies what I would otherwise think was a complex question, how to deal with gendered language. The funny part about children is that things we think are complicated are often the things they find the simplest. My daughter has no time or patience for gendered language. She simply does not understand why I can’t take the time to say ‘amigos e amigas’. After trying to explain the concept of the default pronoun, I realized that she was 100% right. I work on it often now, and I’ve found it really isn’t that complicated to just take an extra second to be representative. It’s not the only issue with Latin culture and gendered language, by far, but it is a much simpler fix than I had thought.
When thinking and talking about language and culture, here are a few things to think about:
- Have You Talked To Your People About What Language Matters To Them?
Have you truly taken the time to survey your group, to figure out what matters to them, and especially to make sure that the traditionally marginalized voices understand that their opinions will be listened to, believed, and carefully considered?
- Remember That Making A Change Doesn’t Mean Blaming Ourselves Or Others For The Past.
Often, we are hesitant to accept change, because accepting that something we’ve been doing all our lives might be something that has made other groups of people feel marginalized, overlooked, or even harassed is a hard thing to face. Most of us are good people, and have never intended to harm anyone. A simple recognition that culture change happens, and once we know better we do better can go a long way to help us be accepting of culture change. Just think of car seats, we don’t judge baby boomers as ‘terrible parents’ for letting us roam the backseats of their Chevy’s during our childhoods, but we’d call the cops in a jiffy on anyone doing it today—our willingness to accept such negligence has disappeared, now that we know better.
- Sometimes You Just Gotta Try It
So often, we use ‘operational concerns’ to mask our resistance to culture change or social improvements. In reality, it’s usually simpler than we think. Just make the change, then deal with the complications that actually pop up—rather than trying to predict ahead of time what complications will make it impossible. It’s usually less complicated than we think.
It’s important to remember that we are living through turbulent times in the world of culture—things seem to be changing on a dime, and groups that have never had a voice before are beginning to claim theirs. There’s no such thing as a ‘little issue’ when it comes to culture. Culture is an index of every interaction that takes place at any time among any people in your organization. Something as simple as the use of the word ‘and’ could be making all the difference.
DANIELLA YOUNG IS A TEDX SPEAKER, AN AUTHOR, COMBAT VETERAN, BOARD MEMBER OF OPERATION CODE, & THE CO-FOUNDER OF CAVNESSHR—AN HR-TECH COMPANY WHO’S MISSION IS TO MAKE BIG-BUSINESS HR AVAILABLE TO SMALL BUSINESSES, THROUGH INNOVATIVE SAAS AND VIRTUAL CONSULTING. DANIELLA SPECIALIZES IN HELPING BUSINESSES CREATE CULTURE ROADMAPS, LEADERSHIP DEVELOPMENT PLANS & EFFECT TEAM TRANSFORMATION. WANT TO LEARN MORE? VISIT OUR WEBSITE AT cavnesshr.com.
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