footinmouthEdmonton-Calder Conservative MLA Doug Elniski’s now-infamous Grade 9 graduation speech sure has given us an example this week of why it’s important to carefully choose both your words and the context in which you use them.

This guy got the message wrong on so many levels when he said – then posted on his blog for all to read – the following:

“Ladies, always smile when you walk into a room, there is nothing a man wants less than a woman scowling because he thinks he is going to get s–t for something and has no idea what.”

“Men are attracted to smiles, so smile, don’t give me that ‘treated equal’ stuff. If you want Equal, it comes in little packages at Starbucks.”

With my somewhat leftist and definitely feminist leanings, I could easily pile on and condemn this poor sap for going on record with such a backward message to young girls. But I think others have already done that quite adequately (here’s an example from Rabble.com). I would like to instead analyze his messaging from a more objective standpoint.

One of the hardest lessons I’ve learned as a plain language writer is that the message you think you’re sending and the one people actually get can be on polar opposite ends of the scale. I.e., the proverbial road to hell paved with good intentions.

Saying things plainly can get you into even more hot water. I’ve had lots of clients who, once they saw what their message ‘translated’ into in plain language, decided to delete the message altogether. And then there are those other times where what you do not say is just as telling as what you do say.

In Elniski’s case, what he says he was attempting to do was a take-off on a routine by a comedian which, in its own context, was likely taken with tongue planted firmly in cheek by its audience. So maybe he was trying to make some kind of connection by being all hip and plugged-in.

As my husband will tell all who’ll listen, when I’m walking around unsmiling in his proximity, it’s usually means he is in trouble. And with men and their fabled ‘need to fix things’ attitude (a la Mars and Venus theorist John Gray), he right away feels he must do something to fix my mood.

So okay, I kind of get what he means. And, in and of itself, the statement “Men are attracted to smiles” is in fact accurate though in this context, it begs the question of what we women are attracted to.

But his problem is that he took a message from one context and plunked it into a graduation address for grade nine boys and girls, many of whom likely didn’t get the comedic reference at all. And worseperhaps again attempting to display his with-it ness – he posted the same message on his blog (which of course has since been taken down in the wake of the controversy).

Granted, the fact that he used this message singling out girls is inherently patronizing and sexist – I don’t disagree with that. But I think he meant well in how he tried to package what he said to make it relatable for young people. But he instead he lived out the lesson a wise person once told me: “When you’re in the hole, stop digging!”

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