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‘Trigger Words’ Trounce Understanding on Diversity Issues

“Two households, both alike in dignity, In fair Verona, where we lay our scene, From ancient grudge break to new mutiny, Where civil blood makes civil hands unclean.”

William Shakespeare, Romeo and Juliet

Understanding between opposing forces, whether the causes for opposition are real or imagined, is older that Shakespeare. Like for the Montagues and Capulats, where the lack of desire to approach the opposing forces with conscious dignity, based in understanding, and acknowledgment, was a recipe for death, in business the result is the metaphoric death of active listening and productive discussion. It is a tenuous and often confusing dance for the actors in a global community where myopic views must be redefined to include so many others points of view, and then actively put into practice.

Just recently in New Jersey an example of insensitivity to the issue of race was acted out in context of the discussion regarding the current rate of unemployment benefits, by two members of the State Legislature, one African American, one Caucasian. While the media parlayed the ‘race issue’ into major headlines for a cycle or two, too soon the public discourse traveled away from long standing issues of race relations, and from the immediate and crisis issue of unemployment benefits for residents, to the more salacious discussion of which political party receives more benefits from their public contract jobs. An opportunity for real understanding between people, for growth and leadership on the issue of race was lost. While questions have been raised about the quality of the diversity and sensitivity training, elected officials at all levels of government are provided with.

The New Jersey case exemplifies the pitfalls we all face in business and in our personal lives when issues of race and stereotypes are raised. To be cognoscente of history and context of the cultures with which one comes in contact with, is the first step in recognizing that there are ‘trigger words’ that can express a meaning to the receiver that may not be what was intended by the speaker.

In the New Jersey case the trigger word was ‘those people’ stated by a Caucasian man, leader of one political party, in reference to the unemployed, with the receiver being an African American woman from the opposing political party. To give the reader context, it is important to understand that the term ‘those people’ has been, and is, commonly used to denote superiority by the person using it. The term has also been used to illustrate that people are other and not like use – therefore suspect. In historical context in our country, the term has been used as a derogatory reference to African Americans, as well as other minority groups, that haven’t been considered part of the ‘main stream’. These are just three contextual definitions for the trigger phrase ‘those people’.

Trigger words cause conflict, anger and pain in society, and in the workplace. Understanding what trigger words are, their context and how one uses them, and the nouns and pronouns to describe ‘others’ that are created and defined each day, as sensitivity triggers, is an important step in learning to navigate ethically, and legally in a diverse, and complex environment. Anger and misunderstanding do more than cause pain in the workplace – it reduces productivity, causes management challenges, and may in the case of racism, sexism, and ageism, result in litigation for a business owner – a costly prospect.

A comprehensive diversity and sensitivity program for businesses, communities and schools, with training and monitoring on a yearly basis is our best chance to act ethically and morally, and to educate our colleagues, friends, and leaders, in the ancient, ever present, and expanding need for understanding between diverse communities. A proactive D&S program that meets or exceeds mandates is also a best business practice that can protect the productivity levels and financial bottom line of ones company or organization.


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