In late November 2019, the Houston Chronicle published a story giving an update to the years-long saga of a class-action lawsuit that challenged the way the Harris County court system handled the setting of bail . As part of the story, it included some examples of the abuses of power alleged in the lawsuit. One video showed a judge doubling an African American woman’s bond from $1,000 to $2,000 after she responded, “Yeah,” instead of, “Yes,” to his question about whether she wanted a court-appointed lawyer. Incidentally, the day before this article was published, Gordon Sondland, the white U.S. Ambassador to the E.U., gave an equally nonchalant answer as part of his Congressional testimony in the House impeachment hearings. When the Democrats’ council asked Sondland whether the logical conclusion to his set of knowledge was that military aid to Ukraine was part of the now-famous quid pro quo, Sondland simply responded, “Yup” . No one in the hearing raised any issue with this response.
Of course, in contrasting the different responses to these two incidents, it wouldn’t be fair to ignore the fact that in one case, the speaker was a defendant who had been accused of a crime in addition to violating her probation, while in the second case, the speaker was a federal official who was cooperating with an investigation. However, our citizens should not be held to higher standards of professionalism than our leaders are, and a lack of formality is surely not a finable offense. I hope that most of us would agree that the Harris County judge’s treatment of the defendant was categorically uncalled for. The double standard displayed in the Harris County court system versus the House impeachment hearings is one example of what I will refer to as linguistic discrimination. Although these examples occurred in seemingly isolated legal settings, linguistic discrimination is a more common occurrence than many of us might realize, particularly in the workplace. Employers should strive to be more conscious of linguistic discrimination and need to be especially careful about the potentially inequitable effects of expecting their employees to speak and act professionally at work.
Two Types of Inappropriate Linguistic Discrimination
Speaking more generally than in the moral or legal sense in which the word most often occurs, discrimination is simply distinguishing between two different things. By this definition, not all discrimination is necessarily wrong. For example, I discriminate when I choose between two local bakeries—I must distinguish between the two of them and choose which I prefer for the particular baked good I want on a given day. Similarly, linguistic discrimination is simply discrimination (distinguishing between two people and treating them differently) on linguistic grounds. The challenge we face with regards to any kind of discrimination is to determine when distinguishing between people is appropriate and when it is inappropriate.
Ethicist and professor of law Deborah Hellman argues that discrimination is bad whenever it treats people as morally inferior, because this is an injustice to them . I propose that any expectation of professionalism that linguistically discriminates based on people’s identities is inappropriate because it violates Hellman’s rule of acceptable discrimination. By saying to an employee, “You can’t speak this way because of your identity,” or “The way that people of your identity speak is not allowed here,” employers would do exactly what Hellman says makes discrimination unacceptable: they would treat the employee and others who share the employee’s identity as morally inferior. This rule of thumb about not discriminating based on someone’s identity is consistent with one of the central tenets of employment discrimination law. Vanderbilt Law School’s Jessica Clark explains in the Yale Law Journal that “courts often hold that antidiscrimination law protects ‘immutable’ characteristics, [which can refer to] not just those traits an individual cannot change, but also those considered too important for anyone to be asked to change” . For the same reason that a company cannot deny a job to people with a physical disability as long as they can still perform the job’s core functions, companies should not set unnecessary linguistic expectations that specifically disadvantage people of a certain identity.
There are two basic types of linguistic discrimination relevant to expectations of professionalism that can be inappropriate given this criteria. The first type of inappropriate linguistic discrimination is the one illustrated in the introduction: the case of a double standard. When a double standard is employed, two people exhibit the same linguistic behavior, but one is treated differently because of some other trait they possess. For example, a man who swears at work might be perceived as strong, passionate, or determined. On the other hand, a woman caught swearing at work might be perceived as trashy or incompetent.
The second type of potentially inappropriate linguistic discrimination happens when a specific group exhibits a unique linguistic behavior, and that behavior is used to justify some discrimination against that group. I will call this pure linguistic discrimination, since it is discrimination that is truly based (at least ostensibly) on how someone speaks, as opposed to some other qualities possessed by the person, as is the case in a double standard. Millions of racial minorities in the United States, especially African Americans, experience this kind of discrimination whenever people perceive African-American Vernacular English (AAVE), sometimes known as “Ebonics”, as unprofessional. Many women are also familiar with pure linguistic discrimination; men tend to associate the rising terminal pitch (“uptalk” or “Valley Girl speech”) that is more common among women with ditziness and lower intelligence .
Appropriate and Inappropriate Expectations of Professionalism
As this discussion has shown, expectations of professionalism in the workplace involving linguistic discrimination may not always be inappropriate, but they are always inappropriate when based on someone’s identity. Thus, a double standard is always inappropriate, since by definition it hinges on the identity of the person speaking in a certain way. On the other hand, we could imagine several cases of pure linguistic discrimination that would be based in something other than someone’s identity. One way to test the legitimacy of the above rule is to examine cases of pure linguistic discrimination that are not rooted in someone’s identity, compare them with cases that are, and check to see whether we would intuitively agree that the first case is appropriate while the second is not.
For example, suppose a national fast food chain wanted all of its associates to respond with “My pleasure” every time a customer said, “Thank you.” Now suppose some subset of the fast food chain’s associates already included “My pleasure” in their vocabulary as a natural response to someone’s thanks. In asking the rest of the associates to whom saying the phrase did not come naturally to nonetheless adopt it into their vocabulary, the fast food chain would be discriminating linguistically. Assuming that this phrase is not associated with any particular gender, race, or other identity, this expectation would be considered appropriate according to the rule discussed above. This seems right; intuitively, the fast food chain seems to be in the clear in asking its associates to respond in this way.
Now, for a case of pure linguistic discrimination that our rule might declare inappropriate. Many people of color face a daily situation in which they are expected to code switch while at work so that they talk “less black” or “more professionally.” One might argue that employers ask all employees to speak professionally, not just people of color. This would mean that the expectation is not based on identity. But to illustrate why this expectation cannot be separated from identity, imagine that a large U.S. retailer announced that in order to provide better customer service, any employee who pronounced the words “out” and “about” as (roughly) “oot” and “aboot” would have to pay $10 to access a short training video about how to enunciate correctly. While this policy is worded in terms of a set of linguistic characteristics and not a national identity, and while it is conceivable for an American to exhibit this particular set of linguistic characteristics or for a Canadian not to, most who are familiar with stereotypes about the Canadian accent would recognize this as a thinly veiled attempt to single out Canadians . The key to understanding why identity is important in these kinds of cases is recognizing that what society considers “professional” or “appropriate” is inseparably rooted in the dominant identities of the culture, in the case of American business: whiteness and maleness .
Employers who are serious about diversity, equity, and inclusion need to be intentional in thinking critically about their expectations of professionalism. They should look for instances when a double standard might be in place or where there are unreasonable expectations at play. They should think twice before giving feedback to a female presenter about how the inflection of her voice might affect perceptions of her. They should refrain from taking someone’s accent into account in making hiring decisions. In the big picture of systemic oppression towards marginalized groups, expectations of professionalism may not seem like such a big deal. But eradicating racism, sexism, or homophobia will not happen by leaps and bounds. Instead, the combination of millions of everyday Americans trying to be more inclusive, considerate, and just will ultimately create a more equitable society.
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