Career Coach: Being 'PC' is just another way of showing common courtesy

We are hearing a lot these days on the campaign trail and in other forums about what is or is not meant by “political correctness.” Some say they are fed up with having to moderate how they talk. They believe that our “PC” culture is damaging our country because people are not free to “be themselves” and share their real beliefs. There have been polls showing that many American adults (mostly Republicans, according to the polls) think political correctness is a problem in the United States.

Merriam-Webster defines political correctness as: “agreeing with the idea that people should be careful to not use language or behave in a way that could offend a particular group of people.” Interestingly, its definition of being polite is: “having or showing good manners or respect for other people; socially correct or proper.” Other definitions refer to “being interested and concerned in other people's feelings or showing consideration for others, using tact, and observing social norms.”

So really, how are the definitions of PC and being polite that different?

Anything taken to extreme might be problematic, yet what about simply being polite to others? Isn't this something we have heard for years and years as something we should all do? At schools and work we are taught to be courteous to others, to help each other out, to treat each other with respect and dignity. So, if we learn that we are using an offensive word to describe someone, why wouldn't we want to change that to be more polite to him or her? It's just like saying “please” and “thank you” to others; being polite is not a sign of weakness or being a pushover.

Often, the opposite of polite is rude. In fact, impolite is defined as a rude person or someone without manners or having low emotional intelligence. At what point did this become commonly accepted as the desired state? Certainly not in schools or work. In fact, there are courses and programs designed specifically to teach manners and etiquette so that people can succeed in getting into better schools or jobs or professions.

Self-improvement expert Dale Carnegie created a lifetime plan for success and wrote several classic books, including “How to Win Friends and Influence People,” in which he describes six ways to make people like you:

• Become genuinely interested in other people.

• Smile.

• Remember that a person's name is to that person the sweetest and most important sound in any language.

• Be a good listener. Encourage others to talk about themselves.

• Talk in terms of the other person's interests.

• Make the other person feel important — and do it sincerely.

His focus on these well-known success tips is on understanding the other person by asking and learning about them — their interests, their ideas, and their suggestions. He doesn't say that you will never be able to candidly offer your own opinions, but he does say to focus on the other person and learning about their views if you want to make friends and learn how to influence them. Likewise, being polite means using appropriate language — being respectful of someone's gender, race, religion, political viewpoints and other potentially controversial or difficult subjects. If you made derogatory or inflammatory comments to another person it would simply be considered rude and tactless.

It's not just good form to be polite. There are plenty of articles about how being polite leads to success in the workplace. Some of the benefits are as follows:

• It enables you to make good first impressions

• Helps you to make friends

• Makes you seem more approachable to others (they will sense that you are open to sharing ideas and having a richer dialogue about things)

• Enables you to build relationships and networks

• Shows you have strong emotional intelligence (with restraint and composure)

• Keeps you from blowing up at small things

• Helps you to more easily transition into a new environment

• Helps you to build trust with others more easily

• Encourages a more positive work culture

The next time you are debating about making a comment, forget the rhetoric about whether it is “PC” or not, and just think about whether it is something that would be considered polite. Our workplaces could benefit from more kindness, politeness and civility.

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Joyce E.A. Russell is the senior associate dean at the University of Maryland's Robert H. Smith School of Business. She is a licensed industrial and organizational psychologist and has more than 25 years of experience coaching executives and consulting on leadership, career management, and negotiations. She can be reached at

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