The Herald Bulletin

September 3, 2013

Emmett Dulaney: Choosing words carefully

The Herald Bulletin

---- — It can be easy to forget just how powerful individual words can be. When they are properly chosen, words have the ability to galvanize readers and stimulate their thoughts in one direction – either for a greater good or at least a cause. Improperly chosen, however, a single word has the power to cause readers to disengage and isolate.

To illustrate this basic principle, I recently borrowed a case from the 7th edition of a classic business text: “The Ethics of Management: A Multidisciplinary Approach” by LaRue Hosmer. Among the many cases in the book, there is one of 894 words that was perfectly suited for the experiment. It is about a young woman who is in her first real job and is asked to ship potentially bug-infested food products to stores they would not normally go to so that the company can recover at least some of its expenses. Three times in that sea of text (one-third of 1 percent), the word “ghetto” is used to describe the location where the stores reside that the buyer, Maria Castellani, wants to send them to.

I asked 11 students to read the case and answer three questions. I also asked another 11 to do the same but the account of the case the other half read had all three occurrences of the word “ghetto” changed to “inner city.” The three questions answered were Likert-type; asking them to pick a number between one and five for each question using the scale: 5 = strongly agree, 4 = agree, 3 = neither agree nor disagree, 2 = disagree, and 1 = strongly disagree. Each of the questions, and the average of the answers for each group, is shown in the following table:

Questions with “Ghetto” and then “Inner City”: I trust Maria’s judgment, 1.4, 2.09; Maria has a lot of experience and usually knows best, 2.5, 3.27; Maria knows best in this situation, 1.3, 1.72.

It is important to reiterate that there were no differences in the case read aside from those three instances of that one highly-charged noun. Under both accounts, the customers who walk into the stores still have a chance that the food they buy will be tainted and unusable – their dignity and respect is still being undermined by the actions of managers in a corporation not willing to do the “right” thing. Given that there is no difference in the story other than that noun, ideally the averages for the two groups of readers should be the same. The fact that they differ — and that one group is so much more in agreement with the decision to ship the defective product — speaks volumes about the power of that one single word.

Most interesting is that the group reading “inner city” attributed to the buyer more experience and thinking that she “knows best” just because she did not use a word that subtracted from her credibility. It is scary to think that with a bit more wordsmithing, it might be possible to arrive at a situation where readers agree with the actions even though the customers are still facing probable harm.

Emmett Dulaney is an Anderson resident and the author of several books on technology. His column appears Tuesdays.