Sunday, April 07, 2013
How we use the words we do
How obligated are we to make sure that our actions or words don't offend others, particularly those to whom we are closest? Even when we give it our best shot to be thoughtful, how responsible are we if our positive intentions yield an unexpected negative response?
Almost 19 years ago, I was part of a team of writers and editors who launched a technology magazine. As editor, I was tasked with writing a note to readers about what we were trying to accomplish.
In a series of articles in the first issue, we tried to address how technology has changed our lives. To serve as a counter to all of the change, I started my note to readers with a look at how my great-grandfather, Ignatz Krauss, might have found his job as a motorman for the New York City subway system, originally built in 1904, little changed in 1994, when it remained decidedly low tech.
One exception I noted was that back in Ignatz's day, he and others running the trains may have used a "motorman's friend," a rubber urinal that motormen strapped to their legs under their pants. I noted that while the technology of e trains had changed little in decades that this bit of low-tech equipment had likely been long replaced -- perhaps in part by stronger regulations about how long a motorman's shift could last.
I never knew my great-grandparents nor my grandparents. Ignatz's youngest daughter, my great aunt, was still alive then and I knew her well. I was never in regular contact with her, but saw her at occasional family outings. She served as the maid of honor at my sister's wedding. I had thought that mentioning her father and featuring a photo of him in suit and bowler hat would be a nice tribute to a family member I had never known.
The article appeared and my great aunt said nothing. She did, however, tell my father that she was appalled and embarrassed that I would choose to mention her father's use of a urinal in a national magazine. Here I thought it would be a nice surprise for my great aunt and other family members to see Ignatz cited as an example of someone whose use of technology represented enduring values of ingenuity and hard work.
But upon reflection, I realize that the bit about the urinal tied to his leg could have been a bit too personal of a detail for my great aunt's sensibilities.
So what was the right thing to do? Should I have cleared my reference with my great aunt ahead of time? Perhaps that would have been a kind gesture.
But then where do we stop in double-checking our actions or words before we use them? If we worry so much about offending or being inappropriate, we run the risk of never saying, writing, or doing anything.
The right thing is to try our best to be as thoughtful as we can about how we choose to do what we do and recognize that we cannot anticipate every reaction to our actions. We should never allow fear of potential responses to keep us from doing whatever it is we're trying to do in the best way we can in the time we have allotted to do it.
Jeffrey L. Seglin, author of The Right Thing: Conscience, Profit and Personal Responsibility in Today's Business and The Good, the Bad, and Your Business: Choosing Right When Ethical Dilemmas Pull You Apart, is a lecturer in public policy and director of the communications program at Harvard's Kennedy School.
Do you have ethical questions that you need answered? Send them to firstname.lastname@example.org.
(c) 2013 JEFFREY L. SEGLIN. Distributed by Tribune MediaServices, Inc.