In a recent team meeting, I said what felt like a pretty innocuous statement about an upcoming goal. But in the days since, I’ve heard from several folks on the team that they heard what I said very differently than I’d intended. Not because they don’t trust me (thankfully), but because they’ve been on the team longer, and their history with the team informed how they interpreted what I said. I was grateful for the feedback, and am glad to have had the reminder. What you say isn’t always what people hear – and while that doesn’t necessarily mean you’re responsible for how they hear what you say, it can still result in diluting the impact of your words, or worse, lead people to tune you out.
With that in mind, there are a couple phrases that I hear on a regular basis that I know people don’t intend me to hear the way I hear them. In both cases, there are easy alternatives to the phrases that would preserve the speaker’s intent, and eliminate any potential negative association. And in both cases, the negative association is really negative.
Drinking the Kool-Aid. We’ve all heard this, countless times, as a generic expression of “I’m in!” I kept count: I heard it three times last week, in three different meetings, about three different initiatives. In each case, the speaker was conveying enthusiasm, and an endorsement of the person advocating for the idea. To a person, they meant well.
But I don’t hear that. When I hear “drinking the Kool-Aid”, I think about Leo Ryan, Jackie Speier, and 900+ dead followers of Jim Jones.
Leo Ryan was the US Congressman representing much of San Mateo county. A number of his constituents had family members who’d joined Jim Jones’ People’s Temple and followed Jones to Guyana, where the families had lost contact. As his constituents’ concerns grew, and Les Kingsolving’s 4-day SF Examiner investigation made clear that all was not well with the People’s Temple, Ryan committed to visiting Jonestown to see for himself. (An aside: this was not Ryan’s first experience with directly observing a situation to form his own opinion. From his Wikipedia page: “In 1970, using a pseudonym, Ryan had himself arrested, detained, and strip-searched to investigate conditions in California’s prisons. He stayed for ten days as an inmate at Folsom State Prison while presiding as chairman on the Assembly committee that oversaw prison reform.” Damn.)
Ryan’s delegation – which included future Bay Area Congresswoman Jackie Speier – was ambushed on an airstrip. Congressman Ryan was assassinated, shot 20 times. Four others – three journalists, and a defecting cult member – were also killed. Ryan’s aide (Speier) and eight others were wounded. That evening, convinced the US government was about to attack, Jones provided his congregation with cyanide-laced Flavor Aid. Many consumed it willingly; those who didn’t were injected with cyanide, or shot. In all, more than 900 were dead by morning. 300 of those dead were children. It was, until 9/11, the greatest single loss of American civilian life in a deliberate act.
When I hear “drinking the Kool-Aid”, I can’t help but think of the horrors of that evening, the impact it must have had on the Bay Area at the time, or what must be horrifically painful memories for the families who lost loved ones 43 years ago. (On this, I highly recommend Season of the Witch, a compelling narration of San Francisco from the late 60s to the early 80s.) There are so many better ways to say you’re excited about something.
Grandfathered in. Another common phrase, it means that the terms of a previous policy are being applied to a current scenario, even though the current policy would handle the scenario differently.
What’s so terrible about this phrase is which policy it originally referred to: the Southern states’ reaction to the passage of the Fifteenth Amendment in 1870, which prohibited racial discrimination in voting. In response, a number of states passed laws that created various, non-racial obstacles to registering to vote (literacy tests, poll taxes, etc.) – simultaneously waiving those obstacles if an individual had been eligible prior to 1867, or were lineal descendants of voters at that time.
In other words: if your white grandfather was eligible to vote prior to the passage of the Fifteenth Amendment, you were eligible to vote. When you talk about being grandfathered in, that’s what you’re referring to.
Call it a legacy, an exemption. PracticalESG has some other suggestions. Just don’t explicitly recall the disenfranchisement of Black Americans in the South that lasted for nearly a century after the Constitutional Amendment explicitly designed to enfranchise them.