Sunday, April 07, 2013

How we use the words we do

Ignatz Krauss

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. 

Follow him on Twitter: @jseglin 

Do you have ethical questions that you need answered? Send them to 

(c) 2013 JEFFREY L. SEGLIN. Distributed by Tribune MediaServices, Inc.


Roy H. said...

Wonderful piece, Jeff. For those of us writing family remembrances from time to time, it offers wise counsel. Thanks.

Willam Jacobson said...


A writer can not be expected to write so as not to offend the sensitivities of the most brittle members of his audience. So long as the writer strives to be accurate in his reporting, takes efforts not to cast his object in a false light and takes known sensitivities into consideration, he has met his ethical obligations even if eggshell readers might be slighted. As such, your initial writing about your relatives' adventures on the rails met your ethical guidelines. It may have been prudent, however, since you we're aware of the daughters existence to utilize the daughter for fact checking purposes and as such would have become aware of the sensitivities prepublication.

Your second publication of your story in a national publication (this one) does not fare analysis as well though. Here you were well aware of your relative's sensitivities and not only retold the story that previously appalled her AND related her third-hand concerns but also go on to question whether or not it would have been proper to include her in your preparation. At the point that you turn the point of your article from the historical facts of your relative's adventures to handling the sensitivities of your other relative's reaction, especially based on third hand reports, you had an ethical and journalistic duty to inform your great aunt and pet her side of the story. Now your actions just appear callous.

William Jacobson, esq
Anaheim, CA

Jeffrey L. Seglin said...

William and Anonymous,

Good points but note the reference that she "was still alive" at the time of the initial article. That reference is meant to indicate that she was alive then but no longer is alive. She died quite a while ago, so while I agree with you that optimally I should have told her about this new column, I could not given that she has died.


Anonymous said...

Ah. Fair enough, that changes the analysis. Thanks for commenting Jeffrey! :)

William Jacobson
Anaheim, CA