Words Matter


I usually don't blog about politics or current events, but the latest scandals involving Alec Baldwin and Paula Deen are worth noting, because the words they chose have had consequences. To recount briefly, Paula Deen revealed that she had used the "N" word, while Alec Baldwin called a reporter a "toxic little queen." While these two certainly aren't the only celebs to have foot-in-mouth disease, they do illustrate that the words we choose matter.  Words have weight and can color how we think about people, concepts, and ideas. That's why it's so crucial for professionals to carefully consider every word they use in their workplace writing. As we preach in all of the classes we teach, readers judge us by the words we use; they make decisions about our professionalism, intelligence, ability to do a job, and thoroughness based on words. And these two celebs clearly illustrate this: Paula Deen has been labeled a racist and Alec Baldwin a homophobe. Whether they are or aren't is beside the point: what's important is that they've been labeled as such based merely on words, not actions or anything else. Words.
And while these are arguably extreme examples for the workplace, they serve as examples nonetheless. Of course, professionals wouldn't use epithets in their writing, but because many workplace writers don't take the opportunity to consider what words will portray them and their firms in the best possible light, the result can be the same. Firms can lose clients or even fail if the words their staff use are inappropriate or if their staff doesn't take good care to choose phrasing that reflects the business' professionalism and integrity. A case in point is a recent McDonald's ad for one of their sandwiches; the caption "I'd hit it" (slang for sex) outraged many people. And lest I be charged with comparing apples to oranges (advertising to business), the documents we write are "advertising" for our businesses and our professionalism. A document that has been written with no thought given to word choice advertises the firm's staff as being too lazy to plan and target their readers, while a well-written and organized document advertises a business that is careful and thoughtful and that takes pride in all the work it does.  
While we certainly don't want to spend all day worrying about which words we should use in any given document, we do want to be especially aware of those words that may show us or our organization in a negative light and, of course, those words that portray us and our organization positively. The idea is to think critically about the words we use and make appropriate choices.