Friday, October 2, 2009

Hitting the PC Ceiling

I started reading Betsy Burton's The King's English, her memoir on opening an independent bookstore in Utah. She and her business partner struggled over the perfect name for their start-up and finally came to a happy agreement over "The King's English."

It was the mid-'70s and not surprising when a couple of feminists walked through the door of the shop. And being a feminist herself, Burton didn't expect to be taken to task by the women.

"Why not The Queen's English?" they asked.

Burton responded with grace and turned the troublemakers into customers. The scenario reminds me of a hiring incident I once bumbled through.

In the mid-'90s, I began my tenure as managing editor of a stable of newsletters. The editorial department was a rowdy generational mix of writers and word snobs who ridiculed me for my political correctness (e.g., I insisted on using a plural in place of "he/him" so as to include both genders). Slowly, they came around.

But then one day, even my sense of empathy was put to the test.

I was interviewing a candidate for a proofreader position. He was smart, had the right credentials, but seemed a bit too smug for my liking. And then it happened. I used the phrase "Copy Nazi" with a smile and his dander went up.

As I listened, mouth agape, this fellow reprimanded me for being so insensitive. Turns out his great-grandfather was an SS official of some sort and he didn't appreciate my little witticism.

Ouch! The PC girl wasn't PC enough, apparently. As serious as colleagues saw me, I had nothing on this guy. I knew he wouldn't make it in the company culture and decided on the spot not to hire him. But he's stayed with me—I think to remind me not to push anything too far.

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