Language is important and words have power.
I've enjoyed words and wordplay for as long as I can remember. As chance would have it, in the last couple of years, I've accidentally fallen out of a career in IT and into one in communications. I seem to cause amusement, irritation and consternation in almost equal measure when I patiently explain to people why "ladies' gift" requires a plural possessive apostrophe and both what an oxford comma is and why it's sometimes crucial to the meaning of a sentence. I'm sure most people think I'm being either a smart-arse or a pain (or both), but precision in the language you use is important and I think it's important to get it right so that you are saying exactly what you mean to say.
As part of my job, I'm required to attend various meetings and conference calls where the performance of the business is discussed. I don't generally say all that much, but I'm there because it's my job to make sure that the key messages and priorities are captured and included in any communications that we send out. When business performance is discussed and we're not hitting our targets, this is almost always described as being "soft" against the budgets.
Everyone uses that word in that context, and although I didn't initially give it much thought, now it's starting to bother me. Why? Because by "soft", they mean that performance is weak: underwhelming, limp, flaccid... you get the idea. Presumably, the antonym for "soft" in this context is "hard".... but I've never yet heard someone describing good performance as being "hard against budget". I assume that this is because that word seems so much more obviously sexual and exposes the origins of the expression.
Let's not make any bones about it: this is a sexual, masculine simile being used in a business context and I don't believe that it's appropriate. Actually, I'll go further than that, I think that it - perhaps subtly, perhaps not so subtly - contributes to a misogynist culture because it's an expression not only celebrates the phallus, but it celebrates "hard" as being good and "soft" as being weak. Presumably, are we to assume, if you don't have a penis at all, hard or otherwise, then you are the weakest of all.
I mentioned this to some people today after one of these conference calls and, perhaps not surprisingly, they'd never thought of it like that before and just laughed... perhaps simply because they thought it was funny that I'd said the word "hard". Maybe one or two of them will now think twice before using the expression again. One can only hope.
Words are important and how we use them is very revealing of our culture, I think.
The company where I work actually has a reasonably high number of female executives, including the managing director, but it seems that the hallmarks of a macho, masculine business culture are lingering and pervasive.
It's a good rule for life at the best of times, but we really should think before we speak.
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