Watch Your Language

I love listening to country music and there’s a song by Brad Paisley called “Water” that’s getting a lot of airtime (you can watch the video for it at the bottom of this post). It’s a fun song about his love of water and it chronicles his water-related experiences from when he was a child up until his adult years. Now one would think a song like this would remind someone of summer vacations or spring break, but I’m reminded of a conversation that I witnessed during a management training course I took eight years ago.

So you’re probably wondering how I made this odd connection. Well, the first part of the song is about jumping in a swimming hole and there’s a line “you’re a big old wuss if you don’t jump in.” “Wuss” is of course a slang word for wimp, but in that management course, I learned that some people are offended by it.

So here’s what happened. The trainer used the term “wiz” to describe someone in a story he was sharing. Now where he’s from in the Midwest, “wiz” is commonly used to describe someone smart. However, the woman sitting next to me in the session thought he said “wuss” so she took him to task during the next break. She told him that he said something that offended her – using that term. At first, I thought it was because some people associate term with another slang term that also means “wimp” but has a sexual connotation. But instead, she went on to say that her son was gay so she found it derogatory. The trainer apologized and explained that she misheard him and settled the issue. But that conversation has stayed ripe in my head for over eight years.

I thought the trainer handled the situation well – he didn’t get upset at her for mishearing him and apologized in addition to clarifying what was said (even though “wuss” would not have fit into the story he was telling so she obviously wasn’t paying close attention to him). But my real take away is that people are easily offended. I shared this story with a friend a few years back when he was preparing a speech for Toastmasters. He used the term “sissy” which I think is less offensive, but I still cautioned him.

As speakers, we know to not use offensive language during our talks. But we also have to keep in mind that appropriateness is in the mind of the beholder. I have a number of gay friends and I’ve heard many of them use the term “wuss” so I would have never thought that someone would find it offensive in that manner. It’s a term I’d never use during a speech or training session (and using it in this article is a little uncomfortable). So the moral of the story: when in doubt, leave it out. If you have to question whether a word or phrase is controversial, potentially offensive or even one the audience might not understand, leave it out. The potential gain is drastically outweighed by the potential risk.

And, if you’d like to hear the song “Water” here’s the video.

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