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Is linguistic profiling fair?

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in Office Communication,Workplace Communication

by Morey Stettner

Experts tell us that racial profiling is a terrible thing. How about linguistic profiling?

We judge people by how they speak, whether we realize it or not. You don’t expect a CEO to say “like” and “you know” every few seconds.

A recent article in The New York Observer examined the speech patterns of New York’s junior senator, Kirsten Gillibrand. A sociolinguistics expert, Bert Vaux, said that Gillibrand “speaks in a much less formal register than one expects from a senator.”

What’s worse, Vaux claimed that Gillibrand tends to speak in a “rising intonation pattern at the end of declarative clauses that laypeople tend to associate with teenage girls.”

Vaux is essentially accusing a U.S. senator of talking like a ditzy teen. The implicit message is Gillibrand cannot serve effectively in office because she lacks the gravitas to communicate like a mature adult.

This raises some tough issues. Should you hire people who cannot articulate well? Should you criticize otherwise solid employees in their performance review for poor vocal inflection or pronunciation? If a skilled worker happens to talk like an unsophisticated rube, then what?

It’s fair game to alert workers of their poor speech habits if they interact frequently with the public. You want your staff to serve as proud ambassadors who reflect well on your organization, not as walking-and-talking embarrassments.

But remember the value of diversity: We want to celebrate differences in people and judge individuals by substance as well as style.

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