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Friday, October 26, 2012

Four Steps to Busting Stereotypes With Strategic Stories | Alexandra Christy, The Communicaitons Network

Christy's article begins with a couple of questions about problems facing organizations with diverse audiences, customers and clients:
  • Are stereotypes about the people you serve getting in the way of achieving your communications goals? 
  • So how do you improve public attitudes toward the people you serve? 
To help communications staff address the concerns of their audience, she asks and comments on the following four questions, but I was especially interested in her comments about the third question:
  1. What does the audience currently feel about the people involved—and what do you want them to feel?
  2. What are the misperceptions about the people involved—and what does the audience not know that would make them feel more positively?
  3. What would surprise the audience about the people involved?
  4. What value do you want to activate?
She writes about No. 3:
In focus groups we conducted, just switching the order of two words—“Muslim American” to “American Muslim”—evoked more positive feelings. When the word Muslim came first, it suggested to the audience that the person valued their religion above the country. When the word American came first, it suggested that the person was a citizen, loyal to the country, shared their values and contributed to society.
Her findings interested me because style manuals and dictionaries name an American citizen's country of origin or heritage first; for example, Japanese American, African American, Mexican American, Norwegian American, Native American. (Hyphens are typically inserted when those terms modify another word, such as African-American history, Norwegian-American celebration).

And as she notes, that word order could be interpreted to place secondary emphasis on the fact that they're Americans. They're Muslim first, Mexican first, Native first. But are they? Or does a particular person want to be considered American first, rather than as an American who's African, Norwegian and so on?

Grammatically, on the other hand, the common word order is correct. An adjective modifying a noun typically goes before the noun, thus a green car, a beautiful photo, a wonderful day. So the common style for referring to race does treat American as a noun and the race as "only" an adjective modifying that noun.

I'm also thinking of preferred editorial style when referring to people with disabilities. Not to suggest at all that a person's race is a disability (or unimportant), but the preference for naming a disability is to "put the person first." Thus: The man who is blind. The child who is paralyzed. The woman with a mental illness (and not the blind man, the paralyzed child, the mentally ill woman). 

I don't have an easy recommendation for these ideas, especially since the current style for referring to race is so ingrained in our language (and grammatically correct). But as most style manuals also recommend: 
  • First, mention a person's race (or age, disability, religion, sexual orientation or other modifying characteristic) only when it's relevant. 
  • And second, ask the person how she or he wants to be identified (perhaps suggesting options if doing that seems appropriate)!
For more related advice, visit these entries in my Garbl's Editorial Style Manual:
Christy's article is featured today (Oct. 26) in Garbl's Good Cause Communications--available at the Nonprofit Communications tab above and by free email subscription.

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