At a recent social event, I was introduced to someone with the words:
‘This is Kimiko. She’s from Japan.’
First, I thought it sounded odd. Was it necessary to add her country of origin? Did Kimiko need to be defined by her nationality, the same way our passports are checked when we go through Customs at an airport?
I thought it was politically incorrect to mention that she was Japanese. I could see that fact with my own eyes.
Then I had a complete about-face.
Am I the one who’s politically incorrect because I made an assumption of nationality based on her facial features?
Some might say yes. It’s racial profiling.
Some might say no. We live in a liberal time where – in theory – there are no more "white, brown, black, yellow or red" elephants in the room. We’re all comfortable referencing gender, race and sexual preference because society has matured. After all, you can’t get any more ‘out, loud and proud’ than the international public lobbying for same sex marriage rights.
See how modern, open, transparent and inclusive we are now?
On the other hand – if we are so modern, open, transparent and inclusive, why are we referencing aspects of people’s lives that pigeonhole them just like in the bad old days?
The 1967 Oscar-winning film Guess Who’s Coming To Dinner is about introducing an African-American doctor to a Caucasian family – as the fiancé of their spoiled white daughter. The characters’ non-verbal reactions tell the story of the norms of that time.
In the award winning hit TV show Mad Men set in the 1960s New York advertising industry, they rarely talked about whether a colleague was gay or straight. It was overlooked, ignored, intimated in gossip, or worse – people were quietly and prejudicially moved out of the openly heterosexual environs so as to ‘not cause offense’ to clients.
Now, in this age of politically correctness, the polite norm of not making overt reference to race or sexual preference might be harking back to that earlier era. Perhaps it is better to avoid spelling out things that are either obvious or none of our business.
Some of my LGBT friends are still defined by their sexual preference and not always in a quiet aside after an introduction is made.
This may not sound like a big deal to some and before I get accused of taking politically correctness too far, imagine using the same frames of reference like this:
‘This is my Caucasian, heterosexual friend, Joe. He’s from a first world nation.’
It is easy to defend racial and gender profiling references in etiquette as accidental, unintentional, even innocently unconscious.
Well, that last one is the most subversive, insidious kind. To be unaware of the impact of language when we introduce people sets us back decades in terms of social evolution.
During World War 2, the US military banned homosexuals from enlisting, forcing LGBT people with military career aspirations to conceal their life preferences in order to get ahead. Then in 1993 the policy changed to ‘don’t ask, don’t tell’ putting an end to some discrimination. Then that policy was repealed in 2010 as it violated 1st and 5th Amendment rights of service members.
So the old ban is now banned leaving us … where?
We’re caught between recognising and acknowledging origins, nationality and lifestyle choices but paradoxically, we don’t want to be politically incorrect by defining people by them.
Observing the right etiquette can seem like a painful strait jacket causing more stress than solutions. But the upside of it is that it streamlines respectful, ethical treatment of people in social situations.
Renée Brack is a journalist, media producer and adventurer.