The Real Problem with Political Correctness
By Nicole Price Founder, Lively Paradox | March 19, 2017
You’re just being politically correct! In America, being politically correct has taken a new meaning and now has a negative connotation. But why? Definitions can help identify the reason. The definition of political correctness is “the avoidance, often considered as taken to extremes, of forms of expression or action that are perceived to exclude, marginalize, or insult groups of people who are socially discriminated against.” In simple terms, political correctness is going to the extreme to avoid insulting socially disadvantaged groups. What could be wrong with that? The issue is not them or the term, it’s us!
Dress code provides a fairly simple (and safe) way for me to express the point. Virtually every job has a dress code. We expect that our carpenters will be dressed a certain way. We expect that our judges will even be dressed a particular way. When people don’t conform to what we deem normal, even in the instance of dress, we are confused. And humans don’t like being confused. While working for one of the most diverse workplaces in the world, I frequently marveled at the distinct dress codes within the dress code. Attorneys dressed like attorneys. Artists looked and acted like artists and manufacturing associates certainly didn’t dress like cafeteria workers.
I laugh when people say, “We don’t have dress code.” Walk into one of those places wearing a three-piece suit, rodeo gear or a ball gown and people will look at you strange. Why? Because you aren’t dressed like they are expecting. For this reason, people were confused when I walked into a manufacturing plant dressed like a marketing professional and I was an engineer. I didn’t know any better. I was young and didn’t even know enough to say, “I should be able to wear whatever I want!” I was so green that I was completely oblivious to what people thought about my outfits. After all, I felt I was presentable and dressed for the job I wanted – a person who ran the world. In my case, this was problematic because good engineers wear khaki pants and polo shirts (insert sarcasm here).
When difference shows up in our families, in our neighborhoods and on our work teams, we often deceive ourselves and say it doesn’t matter or that we welcome the difference. We encourage people to bring their best selves to the table and be authentic. This is well and good until your “authentic” rubs up against what I believe to be socially acceptable behavior. For this reason, conforming to dress code does matter. It is even more important when people experience you for the first time. That initial interaction is when the mind takes the most mental, subconscious shortcuts.
Leadership coach Tara Jaye describes it this way: “We all understand what we personally experience. We also value what we understand. We then act according to what we personally value. Then our brains proceed to create mental shortcuts in the name of efficiency, reinforcing our existing behaviors. Mental shortcuts are the enemy of inclusion because doing anything outside your natural inclination requires intentional thought. And what does intentional thought require? You guessed it – consciousness. We need to uncover ways to increase our consciousness.”
Mental shortcuts cause us to become victims of bias. We lean on prejudices to make swift decisions (i.e. do I trust you or will you kill me). This is true to a lesser degree when a new associate joins a team. The first few days are likely when a new person has no idea what to wear or about any other cultural norms. However, if you are similar to the people at your new place of employment, there’s no problem. Someone will speak up and likely give you casual feedback if you aren’t dressed for the part or if you don’t pick it up on basic cultural rules. However, if you are unorthodox, disadvantaged, underrepresented, or discriminated against, people won’t say a word.
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