Marilyn Finnemore believes in the power of words.
As children, she says, we learn quickly to crave a teacher's praise and to defend ourselves from the sting of playground taunts."Sticks and stones may break our bones," Finnemore says. "But words will break your spirit."
It's a short jump from the schoolyard to the workplace, and the 30-year-old Idaho State University doctoral student says people's workaday lives are packed with written and verbal messages that beat them down like "subtle clubs."
She wants to change that.
In seminars and classes, Finnemore teaches the ABCs of discriminatory language in business, alerting people to how we betray sexist, racist and other negative attitudes in our dealings.
"I'm not after the bigots, but the people who aren't even aware they're wronging anyone," she says.
Civil rights laws are aimed at combating blatant acts, but Finnemore emphasizes the unconscious ways people discriminate in the words they write and speak.
"Words are the source of the way we see ourselves," she says. "Somehow the language that's attached to something makes it good or bad."
The examples are virtually innumerable.
In Washington, D.C., Secretary of Veterans Affairs Edward Derwinski reportedly calls women employees by pet names. Derwinski has said the women like it. But a black woman, whom Derwinski calls "Lena" - after singer Lena Horne - says that isn't so.
A Boise saleswoman on a business trip to Salt Lake City got cut short by a customer when he advised her to forget making any sales and instead "enjoy the shopping here."
"It'll destroy your confidence if you let it because you don't have the credibility," she said later.
And a study by the Amateur Athletic Foundation found that sports announcers at KNBC-TV in Los Angeles devote 18 times as much air time to men's sports as women's. Women and minorities also were far more likely to be called by their first names than men. Of the 19 men called by first names, all were black or Hispanic.
"That's why this thing is so insidious, because people aren't doing it intentionally," Finnemore says.
If businesses want to change veiled racist or sexist behavior among workers, she says, the place to start is finding alternatives to "careless" word choices in labeling people or actions.
A waitress can easily be referred to as a server. Salesmen hit their territory as sales representatives. Stewardesses fly from place to place as flight attendants. And it's no longer firemen, but firefighters. In Sacramento, Calif., manholes now are called maintenance holes.
But lingering stereotypes can have a chilling impact.
"Why say `Richard Rodriguez is a hard-working, even-tempered Mexican' or `Tyrone Johnson is a clean, well-groomed black man'?" Finnemore asks. Such descriptions are wasted or downright condescending if not sincere and deliberate, she says.
"You've got to make a point of getting rid of language that's discriminatory."
Finnemore insists heightened sensitivity to the power of words emphasizes precision, not muddiness, as some contend. More and more, companies are realizing attention to language can reap unexpected profits, including improved employee morale, better public relations and less potential for costly lawsuits.
Leo Puga, 39, is a personnel manager at Hewlett-Packard's Boise plant. Puga, an Hispanic, says the multinational company doesn't allow allegations of discrimination to fester but investigates charges quickly.
"It's one thing to say you're going to take action," Puga says. "It's another thing to do something."
Mark Falconer, a Hewlett-Packard spokesman, says the company's "mix of cultures" forces managers to be alert to the effects of language.
"We need to be sensitive because a seemingly common joke can have very discriminatory elements to it," Falconer says.
Outsiders' knowledge of Idaho often is limited to potatoes and white supremacists. That didn't keep 43-year-old Larry Sistrunk from moving to Boise 14 years ago.
"One of the reasons I stay here is because of the lack of problems," says. Sistrunk, who is black, works for the Bureau of Land Management.
Discrimination complaints are relatively rare. According to the state Human Rights Commission, only 17 of the 294 charges the commission took on this year went to court.
Deputy Attorney General Leslie Goddard says language played a role in most of those cases, but never was enough to make a case by itself.
"We do get calls from people about abusive supervisors, but we can't call it discrimination if he does it to everyone," Goddard says. "It's a management problem, but it's not discrimination."
Finnemore contends discrimination issues in the workplace wouldn't cause headaches if both management and workers chose their words more carefully.