Judge David Langham, in a blog titled “Inconceivable!” posted last week on this website, outlined the importance of the meaning of words, particularly in a legal context. He discusses the challenges of the various components of our government in crafting, interpreting and deploying legislation. His points are well made, but the principle behind his post, that “words mean things,” goes far beyond the halls of legislative and judicial responsibilities. It is an important factor in basic human interaction, and one where different interpretation can cause major conflict and concern.
Considering the fact that the workers' compensation industry is a legally mandated medical benefits system that deals with people of all cultural and educational backgrounds, this is no small point to consider.
There is a house in our neighborhood that I refer to as “the house with the slow children.” Owned by a relatively young couple in their thirties with two young children, it is not too different from most of the homes that surround it. The father, however, appears to be somewhat obsessed with traffic safety in our neighborhood. In addition to videotaping and yelling at rapscallions who dare to violate our neighborhoods 19MPH speed limit, he routinely places a small yellow sign out in the road in front of his house.
It reads, “CAUTION SLOW CHILDREN.”
Now, I am not sure what makes these caring parents think that their children are slow, much less why they would want to advertise their shortcomings to the world. Nevertheless, the sign routinely pops up on the street to advise people that their children are, well, as the sign reads, slow. Ironically it gets knocked down a lot. People run over it with a consistent regularity. It appears that the kids in that house aren't the only thing that is slow.
Of course, it is possible that my interpretation of that sign does not accurately represent its intended meaning. It is possible, if ever so remotely, that the sign is a cautionary effort telling people to use care and drive slowly, as children are present. But no, I've seen those kids playing in the front yard. I am going with my original interpretation.
Besides, the notion that I could be wrong? Inconceivable!
This example does bring up some other useful points, however. Not only are the words we choose important, but so is how they are presented. Design, capitalization and punctuation matter when we are looking to communicate with other human beings.
There are numerous examples of the difference in meaning that can be produced by improper punctuation. The sentence, “Let's eat, Grandma!” has a fairly straightforward context. But when it becomes, “Let's eat Grandma!” the phrase takes on a significantly darker meaning. Likewise, we can compare the following two sentences:
A woman, without her man, is nothing. A woman; without her, man is nothing.
The first sentence, in today's society, can be a controversial and chauvinistic statement. The second is one my wife would agree with. Likewise, the sentence “I enjoy cooking, my family, and my dogs,” sounds downright disturbing when presented as “I enjoy cooking my family and my dogs.”
Capitalization, as previously mentioned, is also important. Unfortunately, the only good example I could find to share involved different variations of the sentence, “I helped my Uncle Jack off a horse.” I would likely offend those with fairer sensibilities if I finished the example showing what a dramatic difference a lack of proper capitalization would make. Most of you are very bright people. You can probably figure it out.
So, where does this leave us in workers' comp? Where should we choose and structure our language appropriately? We could start with the myriad of jurisdictional forms, many of which must be processed by people unfamiliar with our industry nomenclature. We could look at the letters and notices we send, and how we communicate benefit decisions. We can recognize that not everyone speaks OUR language and start communicating from the perspective of the intended recipients.
And, of course, we could rebrand our industry as “Workers' Recovery.” After all, that phrase far better represents what our overall objective is.
Words have meaning, but not always what is intended by those who issue them. Remember, in workers' comp you might just be dealing with a person who came from a house with slow children. The words you use routinely might be, for them, incomprehensible, no matter how inconceivable that may seem.
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Robert Wilson is President & CEO of WorkersCompensation.com, and "From Bob's Cluttered Desk" comes his (often incoherent) thoughts, ramblings, observations and rants - often on workers' comp or employment issues, but occasionally not.
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