“If you can’t say something nice, don’t say anything at all.”
If you heard that phrase ad nauseum as a child, you’re not alone.
And you just might be hearing it a lot today in particular, as June 1–also the first day of Pride Month–is National Say Something Nice Day.
On some level, in the age of cancel culture, censorship, and political and social upheaval after political and social upheaval, having a day where everyone says nice things to each other doesn’t sound half bad.
The root of the simple act of saying something nice is most certainly pure and worth doing: to spread positivity and kindness.
But what if, taken in the bigger picture, saying something nice means masking or dampening our questions about what we may not agree with or don’t understand?
What if, in an effort to make our communication with one another as palatable as possible, we’ve also made it less honest?
What if instead of saying something nice–modern day political correctness–we instead say something true?
If the latter is done with curiosity and compassion, that is where we grow individually and in relationship with one another.
Let’s take a closer look.
What Does It Mean to Be Politically Correct?
Encyclopedia Britannica explains it this way: “Linguistically, the practice of what is called ‘political correctness’ seems to be rooted in a desire to eliminate exclusion of various identity groups based on language usage.”
Kelly Cole, Chief Programming and Innovation Officer at Epoch, sums it up similarly: “[Being politically correct is] a surface-level attempt to address the impact language has on lived experience.”
For Caroline Nguyễn Ticarro, Operations Support Manager at Epoch, being politically correct is synonymous with “being nice,” something she got her fair share of, she says, growing up in Minnesota. “‘Being nice’ was just hiding what the truths/facts really are. [Today] We overuse politically correct terms and . . . worry more about being right instead of being responsible and respectful.”
In this case, Ticarro is describing an elephant in the room around political correctness: the shame we can feel when we don’t say the “right” thing, especially when it comes to words that are triggering.
Wait . . . Isn’t Being Politically Correct a Good Thing?
The short answer? It can be.
Despite the challenges we will cover in a moment, some believe there are times when its deployment is warranted . . . even helpful.
Take, for example, starting a conversation.
“If you call me ‘Oriental’ because you’re from a certain generation,” Ticarro says, “I’ll tell you how I feel about being called that and ask that you use some more correct, updated terminology, such as ‘Asian American.’”
Danielle Gervasio, Programming Support Manager at Epoch, can see many instances in which leaning toward what she sees as “PC-ness” is actually helpful, not hurtful.
“Being PC (if I think of how I truly interpret the term with its original intent) is to be civil and considerate. It is to use language PURPOSEFULLY not to inflame or create a barrier in the conversation. When people are civil and considerate it allows for a deeper reality, which we are all a part of.”
For Gervasio, it goes back to the question of intent.
“I just don’t automatically link ‘PC’ with ‘frightened tiptoeing,’” she says. “….except where it is and that is driven by specific conditions and examples.”
She is not alone.
In an interview with The New Yorker last summer, Nesrine Malik, Sudan-born author of We Need New Stories: The Myths that Subvert Freedom, also argues in favor of political correctness. Speaking of the “hand-wringing about these issues as well—political correctness and freedom of speech” she sees as especially prevalent in white liberal spaces.
“And so the reason I encourage political correctness is that it’s tense out there. We all are bringing certain ideas, certain backgrounds, certain religions to the discourse. And the only way we can oil that conversation is to extend the protocols of political correctness to everyone.”
Malik speaks powerfully, too, of the role of the media in this dynamic.
“Well, I think we need more political correctness in the way that we have commodified people’s pain in our media discourse. One of the things that have been very difficult to see over the past five years, in particular, is this creation of an almost Colosseum-like public arena, where people shout at one another, and abuse one another, and we bring down the dignity of people as they try to make points about their safety and their respect.”
So . . . What’s Problematic About Political Correctness?
In a dynamic that lends itself nicely to metaphor here, there’s nothing black or white about the value of being politically correct. While it may have positives in some situations, it is decidedly not positive in all.
Our founder, Dr. Nancy Dome, tackled the discussion of the challenges around political correctness in her bestselling book Let’s Talk About Race (and Other Hard Things),
“Political correctness (PC), which took hold in the nineties, has rendered us all but ineffective in our pursuit of communicating with one another. There is more gossip, hurt feelings, misunderstandings, and intolerance because we do not actually know how to engage with one another when the going gets tough. We are great when all is well, but if history has shown us anything, it’s this: all is definitely not always well. What then?”
Why, then, can’t we just talk? This is not a simple question with a simple answer. We all bring our personalities, learning styles, and lived experiences to the table. These factors and others—such as to whom we’re speaking, power dynamics, and how we feel in the moment—all influence how we communicate, and rightfully so.”
Also to that end–and, in an ironic way, speaking to Malik’s point in the alternative–Cole points out that political correctness can be employed with a righteousness in certain situations. This allows the deeper root causes and structural inequities that harmful language represents to grow. When this happens, it’s all the more easy for folks to cry ‘oversensitivity.’ (Who among us has heard someone grumble something like, “You just can’t say anything these days?”)
As New York Times columnist and author of Fire Shut Up In My Bones Charles M. Blow says, “One doesn’t have to operate with great malice to do great harm. The absence of empathy and understanding are sufficient.”
This, in effect, sums up the core issue around political correctness: it might be well intentioned and without malice, but it doesn’t lead to progress.
Where Do We Go From Here?
The truth is that words, like people, are complex.
There are entire practices around communicating more effectively, including navigating political correctness in a way that is honest and more apt to move the needle. If you’re looking for a crash course, though, here’s a place to start:
If you’re responding to a politically incorrect comment:
- Non confrontationally remind the speaker of the complexity of the term they’re using, humanizing the term with experiences and history, if possible
- Facilitate dialogue that moves the conversation past “slogan” or “headline” language (Hint: lead with curiosity)
If you’re struggling to slow down your usage of politically correct language:
- Ask yourself: Why is this language offensive or dehumanizing? What is the stereotype or deficit belief it signifies?
- Humanize the why by asking who the language you’re avoiding targets. What is the human impact of those deeper stereotypes? What is the counterstory to them?
An Example For the Road
The Australian television program Old People’s Home for Four Year Olds is a social experiment in which preschoolers and elderly adults–two groups with seemingly very little in common–interact with one another to see if they can foster empathy.
In one clip, senior citizen Rita has formed a bond with Arthur, a little boy. It is clear that they bring one another joy. When it’s time for the senior citizens to meet their young friends’ parents, Rita seems excited–but she also has some questions. You see, Arthur has two dads, and Rita is unsure of the etiquette around meeting them.
As we watch, Rita turns to a younger adult who appears to be a caregiver at the living facility and asks, rather timidly at first and then with a bit more gusto:
“I was wondering whether I refer to them as Daddy 1 and Daddy 2?” she asks, the pointed collar of her pale yellow shirt sitting just-so on her blush floral blazer. She has tried to look her best for the meeting of the dads. “Do I say Daddy Paul or Daddy Wade? Shall I ask them that? Do you ask them how they like to be known? Or is that too personal? It’s no big deal [referring to their sexuality]. They’re just beautiful people because they have a beautiful child.”
It is clear that Rita is trying her best to be politically correct about a situation with which she’s unfamiliar. The entire interaction is ripe with sweetness and effort. The woman receiving her questions, ever-patient, replies:
“Yes, I think it’s okay to ask them.”
As long as it’s done from a place of compassion–and, as Gervasio says, comes from a place of “being considerate of how words carry meaning and can impact other people”–we agree with that advice.
Join us to learn more about the issues surrounding political correctness . . . and how to overcome those . . . using a specific framework within Compassionate Dialogue®.
P.S. We still believe today is a nice day to say something nice to a stranger. Try it.