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Cultural change is “chicky”

OFFUTT AIR FORCE BASE, Neb. -- I grew up in Tennessee and was raised in a large family. My brothers, sisters, friends and I all had terms of endearment we used for one another signifying the closeness of our relationships. If you know anyone from the South or have visited the South, you will probably agree that it's not uncommon to hear terms such as "honey, sugar, sweetie or darling" used regularly when communicating. The use of such terms was seldom seen as derogatory or demeaning and was accepted as a normal part of communication.

My preferred term of endearment for females I was close to was "chicky." I used the term for years to lighten an environment and allow people into my personal or inner world. Such terms were viewed as being "real" with the people around you. I continued to carry this habit with me as I adventured into the world outside of Tennessee. But, my lack of change in cultural awareness ended up causing conflict in a previous workplace and could have resulted in an Equal Opportunity complaint.

As a staff sergeant instructor for an Air Force training facility, I was sharing some of the plans I had made for an upcoming weekend with my class, and they shared their plans with me as well. However, one of my female students approached me at the break and made the following comments; "Staff Sgt. White, I don't like it when you use the word 'chicky' when referring to women. No disrespect intended, but I feel the term is demeaning. I know you don't mean any harm by using the word, but I feel it's degrading to women." I was surprised at her words but thanked her for bringing the issue to my attention. I then had a choice to make; I had been placed on notice that one of my students was offended by a certain term I used. I could ignore her and say "she's just over sensitive" and continue using the term or I could eliminate it from my vocabulary.

Hmmmm, tough choice. "Not!" I chose to apologize to the sergeant and commit never to use the term again other than in a teaching example or if truly discussing chickens.

What's the point? The military culture has changed in every demographic aspect possible and each of us must change as well. Even though my intent was never to harm or offend females or anyone else by my use of the term "chicky," the impact was that females were negatively impacted because the term degraded women. One person's perception becomes their reality. Furthermore, certain words or terms were never ok, most of us just got a "free pass card" because we were "good guys."

In the role of a director and mediator, it is essential to be able to help parties, internal and external, navigate through the choppy waters of cultural misunderstandings into the serene sea of mutual appreciation and understanding for each party's interest. Small situations dealing with the use of simple words can lead to costly cases if not appropriately addressed. Behaviors, comments or jokes regarding a person's abilities, culture, gender or national origin can quickly lead to a downward spiral of workplace conflict.

Directors, commanders and managers are in essence mediators who, with a little effort, can use basic respect as the tool to bridge parties separated due to various conflicts in the workplace. A very soulful and dynamic woman once made popular a simple term: R-E-S-P-E-C-T, find out what that means to me. When people treat one another with this basic element, which involves dignity according to the Human Goals Charter, everyone wins regardless of cultural or demographic background.

I chose to take every day stumbling blocks and turn them into firm stepping stones so that each person has the opportunity to reach their full potential. Now, what will you do?