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Words Matter

I am surprised by how often connotation and annotation vary and make understanding words and intent more difficult. The amount of jargon we use in our work discussions can confuse the topics and intentions. The example I will use is one of my pet peeves, the “Ethernet cable.” While many of us know through experience what the intent is, the phrase does not effectively communicate the specifications of the cable.

An Ethernet cable is typically an ANSI/TIA-568 cable that has been certified to Category 5e or higher standard. The cable is terminated with 8P8C connectors following the ANSI/TIA-568B standards. Even using other phrases such as Cat 5 or RJ45 cable is not accurate. The Category 5 standard was deprecated at the beginning of the century; it is now Category 5e or higher. RJ45 stands for Registered Jack number 45, so it would not be the termination of a male cable. Plus, Ethernet is a communications standard—IEEE 802—that can be transmitted via copper, fiber optic, or coaxial cable. To describe it more accurately, it is an 8P8C Category 5e cable terminated to ANSI/TIA-568B standards. Of course, to make things more complicated, Category 5e cables with 8P8C connectors are also used to connect analog signals, can be used to carry AES3 digital signal, or a proprietary network. That is why it is not an “Ethernet cable.”

That is a large amount of information being expressed by the phrase Ethernet cable or Cat5 cable. Very little of it is actually correct, but it accomplishes the intent of expressing the connectors and type of cable. It is most definitely not a specification of the cabling performance, connectors, and termination standard expected. The fact that the term conveys intent is the point, however it is still incorrect language.

I have started to wonder if this knowledge is being shared or transmitted to the next generation of AV or IT professionals. It is not fair to simply say, “Young people, they don’t know about cabling.” Has anyone stopped and explained the definitions and meanings to people? In the information technology space, it is very important to use the proper terms. Some think that Ethernet hub, switch, router, and wireless access point are synonymous. They are often combined in the same piece of hardware for a home network. In a corporate of professional AV environment, those four items are typically separate. My interactions have proven that not everyone knows this information, and age does not matter. Many think it is common knowledge because of how much experience we have. We need to remember that in order to foster growth of our industry, we need to educate people about these important differences. Have you helped spread this knowledge?

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Some AV or IT colloquialisms are not as innocuous as using the term Ethernet cable. There are expressions that can be offensive to people. A simple example is the slang for a pair of diagonal cutters. The term can be offensive to some people, even though offense is not intended. A friend of mine teaches sound design and sound technology at the local college. She educates her students about these terms and how they are not meant to be derogatory; the terms entered common use a long time ago. Inspired by conversations with her, I now say, “diagonal cutters” instead of the slang. The fact that she has to explain that no slight is intended should bother us as an industry. These unintended slights and slurs can easily make people uncomfortable, make them feel that our industry is not the place for them, make them feel unwelcome.

Many will say, “It is unintentional,” or “It’s just slang.” That is not acceptable anymore. I am by no means an attorney or HR professional. I am aware, however, that a hostile workplace can be defined by objectionable content and actions, whether intended or not.

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Before there is a backlash of being too “sensitive,” I ask what is so bad about trying to be nice, courteous, and polite to people? The decision about what is offensive must be tempered by the setting. If one goes to see a comedian and is offended, it is not the comedian’s fault. The audience came there voluntarily. In a corporate environment, even outside of the workplace, one cannot be thought of as being there voluntarily. If there is an after-hours social event, even if not company-sponsored, many people feel pressure to attend to make an effort to know their co-workers and be social. It does not mean that one can ignore the idea of being polite and not insulting. Impolite, rude, harassing interactions often happen in these environments after people have had an alcoholic drink or two. Those social interactions still have an effect on how people feel about their workplace.

The problem of being there voluntarily is also the problem with some diversity efforts. We all need to be aware of the meanings of the words “welcomed,” “invited,” and “accommodated.” The distinct meanings are important and often overlooked. Allow me to state, I am commenting and writing from a position that is privileged. I refuse to obviate my majority status by pointing out all the ways I am a member of a protected class in the United States. To me, that is ignoring the actual issues.

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The key here is the difference between those three words: welcomed, invited, and accommodated. Saying that someone will make accommodations for a more diverse work force can be patronizing. It is the subtle things that people miss that change people’s experiences. An example is new mothers in the workplace who are told that their need to express milk will be accommodated in that the company will allow time for it and the employee may use the bathroom to do it. “Welcoming” would be providing a comfortable, private place to express. Which one would you prefer? Which one would make you feel like you are valued by the company?

This awareness does not apply only to women, of course. It can be providing a private space for people of all denominations to be able to pray during the workday. It can be making sure there is food that meets everyone’s dietary requirements at company meals. “Accommodating” would be providing a salad with no meat; “welcoming” would be asking people if they have dietary restrictions ahead of time. When hosting events, I ask about any dietary restrictions on the RSVP form. It tells people they are valued and welcomed, not a burden or different.

It is only when we, as people in the AV industry, understand the differences and impact of these words, of using jargon, of not sharing knowledge, that we can help improve our industry. I want everyone who is interested in this industry to be welcome in this industry. Let’s work together to make that happen.