Language sensitivities: Murdoch’s mistake

Portraying different races, cultures, and disabilities using acceptable terminology in writing or in speech can often be a challenge.

You need to keep up-to-date with trends, understand political or cultural sensitivities, stay abreast of accepted styles and be aware of how the communities themselves wish to be portrayed.

Let’s take the description of ‘disabled people’ as an example. Most of us will remember when the word ‘handicapped’ was completely acceptable. And while ‘disabled people’ is the preferred terminology in the UK, over in the US, the accepted phrasing is ‘people with disabilities’. I found this interesting blog post explaining some of the complexities here.

It’s really difficult. But, I believe that anyone involved in communicating to a wide audience has a responsibility to use correct and current language as best they (we) can. It shows awareness, sensitivity, understanding, intelligence and ultimately retains your credibility as a communicator.

It was quite the opposite for media tycoon Rupert Murdoch when he used the term ‘mentally retarded’ at the Leveson Inquiry this week.

Murdoch wasn’t being malicious – he was praising UK Prime Minister David Cameron for his dedication to his son Evan, who died aged nine years old after battling severe physical and mental disabilities.

Murdoch wasn’t trying to create shock – I really do think that at 81-years-old he just didn’t really think about what he was saying.

And Murdoch might not even have known he had made a mistake – as an Aussie, that terminology is a lot more widely-used Down Under than in England.

But that’s all pretty irrelevant. I think that as the head of a media empire, speaking to a global audience, in the 21st Century, Murdoch had a responsibility to not make that mistake.

He’s not just any 81-year-old Aussie chatting to a few friends down the pub. He’s a man who (whether we like it or not) has a massive reach all across the world. And with that comes responsibility to understand and use the correct and current language of the time and the place he is in.

By not doing so, Murdoch showed himself to be out of touch with the modern world, lacking relevancy and – let’s face it – lacking a bit of common sense.

Words have power, they garner respect and build credibility, and they reflect a person’s understanding of the world.

When you use the incorrect words, the exact opposite becomes true.

A few tips:

  • In business, the internal ‘style guide’ of the organisation should always make reference to correct terminologies, or at least highlight particular areas of caution. This of course depends on your industry and relevant audiences.
  • Check out charity websites: If you’re looking to portray a particular community or group of people, I find it easiest to check relevant websites and copy the language used. For example, if I am writing about diabetes, I’d check Diabetes UK to discover the correct terminology is ‘people with diabetes’.
  • It’s always worth including a list of terminologies in briefing notes if your leadership will be meeting with external stakeholders from particularly interest groups.
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