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Volume 16, Issue 19;   May 11, 2016: Characterization Risk
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Characterization Risk

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To characterize is to offer a description of a person, event, or concept. Characterizations are usually judgmental, and usually serve one side of a debate. And they often make trouble.
Dr. Ben Carson speaking at CPAC 2015 in Washington, D.C., on 26 February 2015

Dr. Ben Carson speaking at CPAC 2015 in Washington, D.C., on 26 February 2015. In the course of the 2016 presidential campaign in the U.S., Dr. Carson has been characterized as sleepy, slow, and slow-witted. And Dr. Carson has characterized others as well. For example, he has characterized President Obama as anti-semitic. Although characterizations are widely used in political campaigns, they degrade the level of debate and distort the outcomes of elections. Photo (cc) by SA 3.0 by Gage Skidmore.

Characterizing is a rhetorical tactic used for evaluating a person, event, or concept. For example, "Let's not make such a big deal out of this decision," is a way of disagreeing with another's approach to making the decision not by critiquing the specifics of their approach, but by labeling it as a "big deal." To characterize is to devise a description, usually a judgmental one, for evaluating a person, event, or concept. Because characterization often serves to support the speaker's preconceptions, it's a popular debate tactic that can lead to making decisions on bases other than the merits of the question.

When we characterize pejoratively, even if accurately, the person characterized, or the proponents of the idea characterized, can feel personally attacked. They might retaliate later, if not immediately. And the targets of that retaliation can be anyone or anything. Pejorative characterization is risky.

But characterizations can cause trouble even if not pejorative. In private settings, positive characterizations can be harmless, or even constructive. But if a public positive characterization is comparative, it can offend others. For example, "That's the most brilliant idea we've heard so far," praises that idea, while simultaneously and implicitly characterizing the other ideas as less brilliant.

Some try to mitigate the risks of positive comparative characterizations by means of carefully worded hedges:

  • "That's a brilliant idea — no idea we've heard so far is more brilliant."
  • "Robert is a great team player. None better."

These hedges explicitly eliminate the implication that the alternative ideas are less brilliant, or that the other team members have less team spirit. While the intentions of the speaker might be laudable, hedges are ineffective, for two reasons. First, the person being characterized, or the proponent of the idea being characterized, often does hear the hedge, and does notice the faintness of the praise. And second, ironically, most other people don't hear the hedge. They often feel attacked anyway.

What can we do about this? Begin by accepting that there's no place for public, pejorative characterization of people, their behavior, or their contributions. Constructive, critical commentary is helpful, if delivered privately, respectfully, and with permission. But how can we offer support for good ideas, or commend constructive behavior, without characterization?

One There's no place for public, pejorative
characterization of people, their
behavior, or their contributions
approach that limits the risk of giving offense is to focus not on the person, or their contributions, but on the consequences for organizational goals, while avoiding comparisons. Examples:

  • "That suggestion could lead to big savings in maintenance costs."
  • "When Robert stepped up after the server crashed, he really helped us avoid a catastrophe."

In these forms, we avoid directly commending the personhood of the contributor. Instead, we commend the outcomes of the contributions, which avoids devaluing by implication any other contributors.

Listen for characterizations in the debates you witness every day. Are they helpful? Do they advance the group toward its goals? Go to top Top  Next issue: Ego Depletion and Priority Setting  Next Issue

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