Friday, September 14, 2012

Words matter.

This week my son brought home a flyer in his backpack promoting the schools "Watch D.O.G." program and asking the students dads to volunteer.  The organization is designed to provide strong, positive male role models at the school.  As a concept, we very much approve of the idea and celebrate that at least in our school district dads are seen as just as necessary for a child's success as moms.  However, the flyer was titled, "Calling all Dogs!"  And they lost my husband right there.  He started going off on why men have to be compared to dogs, which usually carries a negative context while the moms are always given positive monikers.  It offended him deeply.  Now maybe it's part of his own issues related to being an early adopter of the stay at home dad phenomena. Maybe he's the only person in the history of the program to draw that connection.  I doubt it, he's not usually the super sensitive, politically correct type.  Either way, it illustrates the point that words matter.

As lawyers, we very carefully choose our words when drafting a pleading, a contract or an email to a client or opposing counsel.  We may be less careful when communicating with friends, family and co-workers, or when communicating things that don't have "legal" significance.  One of the soft skills they don't teach you in law school is how to perfect this second type of communication.  It's easy to fire off an email to a co-worker about a non-legal issue without thinking about how your word choice may change the way your co-worker receives the message.  It's often words that invoke an emotional reaction from the reader that may hijack your message and turn it into drama.

I'm not advocating spending the time and care in crafting emails about lunch as you do in crafting complex contracts.  But you should get to know your co-workers and colleagues enough to know what their sensitivities.  For those you don't know well, format your communications as if your target audience is your grandmother.  (Proper grammar and all!)  You may just avoid having that email explaining why someone was not invited to a meeting turn into World War III.  

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