http://www.jsonline.com/bym/career/oct02/85638.asp Business Speak Oct. 6, 2002 J. Robert Parkinson It's usually interesting, sometimes amusing and always important to pay close attention to all the words we use. We make choices not only in business communications, but also in our everyday lives, and we should be careful. Words are labels that become significant in the way we respond to situations. They carry strong meanings, and they often influence the way we act. I was reminded of this recently when I read a news story about "hackers" breaking into the secure computer of a major U.S. corporation. These "hackers" were teenagers, and the story described them as "good kids" who just wanted to see if they could do it. No harsh penalty was suggested because they didn't do anything "really bad." On the surface this seemed to be innocent enough because they were just kids, and they weren't being malicious, only irresponsible and inquisitive. They didn't mean any harm. They were, after all, just "hackers." That word, "hacker," itself seems innocent because it sounds kind of frivolous. The word makes the action seem unimportant, but the action is serious. The action is called "breaking and entering," and that's another name for "burglary." A "hacker" isn't a cute character; he is a felon. Perpetrators often justify their actions by saying something to the effect that, "If someone can get into the computer it isn't secure. If the companies made their systems secure, I wouldn't be able to get in. I can get in, so it's the company's fault for not making it secure." This doesn't make any sense. There is nothing more physically vulnerable and less secure than a letter sitting in a mailbox. Anyone, even a child, can take a letter out of a mailbox and open it. Yet mail is secure in this country. Physical and technological barriers don't provide the protection, but mail is secure because of a mental attitude. It's just plain wrong, not to mention illegal, to open someone else's mail. Doing so is a serious federal criminal offense. People go to jail for stealing mail. If the hacker mentality were applied to mail, a mailbox would have to be armor plated, chained and locked so no one could possibly open it. Imagine how difficult it would be to build a mailbox at your home or office that was invulnerable to anyone who wanted to take out a letter "just to see if he could"? Our national mind-set is what makes mail secure. The same should be true for information on a computer. Just because it's possible to get at electronic information doesn't give anyone the license to do it any more than being able to open someone's mailbox gives anyone permission to do that. Society would never tolerate a "United States mail hacker," and there is no reason to tolerate a computer hacker. Clear and accurate communication is essential for business to be successful. In a past column, I quoted my first-grade teacher, who often said, "Say what you mean, and mean what you say." I don't think she would ever use the light-hearted word "hacker" for such a serious activity. She would have a much stronger word. Perhaps all of us in business should use equally strong and clear language, and place the responsibility or blame where it belongs. The way we use language defines both our companies and us as individuals. Honesty, clarity and accuracy go hand in hand. With increasing frequency, business executives are focusing on ethics and honesty and the need to do what is right - not just what someone can get away with. Choose your words well, and then stand behind them. They are the spotlight that helps others see you and your company. Be sure what they see is what you want them to see. Use the "hacker" label as an example. He is a criminal, and that's what he should be called. That's being honest, and honesty is what business has to demonstrate today more than ever. All of our clients and customers are watching and listening. We better be sure we're using the right words and sending the right messages if we want to stay around for a while. J. Robert Parkinson is a communications consultant working in private industry, government and higher education. He has written five books and hosted numerous radio and television programs. He can be reached at jrpat_private or at www.jrparkinson.com. - ISN is currently hosted by Attrition.org To unsubscribe email majordomoat_private with 'unsubscribe isn' in the BODY of the mail.
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