Diversity dialogue can be stymied : Many stumble over correct words to say


ROCHESTER — Valda Boyd Ford recalled a friend who was fearful of speaking before a group of Cuban doctors.

His concern: Should he call them Hispanic or Latino?

"I told him he was given a clue," said Ford, while speaking at the Diversity 2006 Conference, which attracted about 400 people to the Riverside Convention Center last week. "If you go down there and say, 'Hi doc,' I'm sure they'll be OK with it."

Ford, founder and chief executive and president of the Center for Human Diversity Inc. in Omaha, Neb., talked about this "paralysis of political correctness" at one of dozens of sessions at the conference.

Diversity 2006, sponsored by the Workforce Diversity Network, is one of the nation's most extensive conferences of its kind and attracts professionals from across the nation.


<strong>Communication stops</strong>
One problem people face in a diverse workplace is feeling paralyzed by the fear of being politically incorrect in speech or mannerisms, Ford said.

Communication breaks down if you hesitate, for example, because you don't know if you should call someone deaf, hearing-impaired or hearing-challenged, Ford said.

The other person will sense your discomfort, thinking you're hesitating because of them and not necessarily because you are afraid of being offensive.

Yet you might fear reprisal, or being labeled an "ist" word like sexist or racist.

The solution is to avoid labeling when possible. If that is unavoidable, start a dialogue about your confusion. If you do say the wrong thing, and sense someone's discomfort, inquire about that.

Starting a dialogue is important, she said. If you are on the receiving end of an offensive remark — even if it's not about you — inquire about the person's reason for saying a particular phrase.

Try to ascertain if they're being malicious, or if they are unaware of their insensitivity, she said. Explain why their statement wasn't the best. Don't ignore it.

People with disabilities, for example, will likely feel worse if you tip-toe around them, Ford added. They want to be treated like everyone else.

Sharoon McHellon, an attendee from Memphis, Tenn., recalled one day when she brought her sister into her workplace.

McHellon worked with blind and visually impaired people. One client walked into a wall. McHellon jokingly asked "if he didn't see the wall," to her sister's horror.

"But the boy just burst out laughing," said McHellon, who is now an inclusive director for a Veterans Affairs Medical Center.

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