Banning whose words?: Coverage of the Chick-fil-a ‘slang’ ban and Ban Bossy

Perhaps my least favorite thing about internet journalism is its ability to endlessly generate non-news by summarizing and linking to what people write on social media sites like reddit and Twitter.

This past week, a friend pointed me toward one of these non-news pieces. Apparently, a reddit user who allegedly works at a Chick-fil-a posted a picture of a sign his manager made banning a number of terms that the internet has dubbed ‘slang’. The over one hundred articles that have been written about this non-news have added a couple of important pieces of information to our understanding of the situation. First, none of the information in the reddit user’s post can actually be verified (and y’know why should journalists be bothered to verify the information they report on?). Second, people on the internet apparently have opinions about the sign, which appears below.

I don’t have any interest in writing extensively about this sign. It is typical peevery aimed at young people’s language. That’s nothing new. It is an essentially incoherent collection of apparently offensive words, word senses (for example, chill intended as “relax” but not as “make cold”), phrases, sentences, and pronunciations that the sign creator puts forth no rationale for opposing beyond that they apparently are indicative of improper or unprofessional persons. Again, nothing new.

What I want to talk about is the coverage of this incident and what it says about the media’s (particularly right wing media’s) ideologies related to language. In particular, I want to compare it to another proposed “banning” that I have written a lot about: the Ban Bossy campaign.

Before I do that though we should compare what we know about the two situations. Both involve a conscious effort by social actors to alter the language of those around them, but they are different in a number of other ways.

Ban Bossy is a gender equity campaign that asks people to voluntarily refrain from calling young girls “bossy”. According to its website, the campaign’s mission is to “encourage girls to lead”. Ban Bossy activists have no actual power to enforce any real ban on the word.

This Chick-fil-a manager is actively using his power as supervisor of his employees to police their language. Rather than being about one word or about one speech act (in other words, the labeling of women and girls as unfit to lead), the manager’s policy covers an expansive set of words, phrases, etc. that seem to serve vastly different purposes in the talk of his employees with the ultimate goal of requiring them to speak “properly” and “professionally”.

Knowing these things though, how does right wing media cover these two situations?

New York Post’s coverage of the Ban Bossy campaign

I’ve looked closely at the way one venue, the New York Post, wrote about these respective issues: (1) the launch of the Ban Bossy campaign and (2) the posting of this sign.

The way that the Post framed Sheryl Sandberg’s and her fellow activists’ Ban Bossy campaign is pretty clear just from looking at the headlines of the articles that the Post ran with the section that they ran under in parentheses:

  1. Facebook COO Sandberg’s ludicrous crusade against ‘bossy’ (News)
  2. The ridiculous campaign to ban ‘bossy’ (Living)
  3. Ban bossy? No-be bossy! (Opinion)

Having had the unfortunate experience of reading all of these, I have a number of observations about them.

First, the Post writers question the seriousness of the problem that Ban Bossy attempts to address. One article referred to it as a “phantom menace” and reduced the problem to Sheryl Sandberg’s personal experience of being “brutalized by a word as a child”, the solution to which the author suggests is simply for her to “see a shrink or visit a bar”.

Second, the Post writers question the effectiveness or practicality of the solution of avoiding the word bossy for addressing the larger social problem. One of the authors comments that intentional efforts to change language are “inherently ridiculous” and claims that “if we launched media campaigns to ban every ugly word that comes our way, we wouldn’t have time to get anything else done.” He goes on to refer to the French Academy which prescribes rules for French speakers including trying to guard the French language from influence by other languages most notably English. Specifically, the author compares the Ban Bossy campaign to the French Academy’s insistence on the term courriel instead of e-mail, which he notes is a futile endeavor owing to the fact that French speakers find the term e-mail “cool”.

Third, they defend the usefulness of the term bossy. In particular, one of the authors notes that a term for people who are abusing or usurping power helps us remind people of their responsibilities to those around them.

Finally, the Post writers present the Ban Bossy campaign by describing them as simultaneously weak and oppressive. On the one hand, they are weak because they ask others to modify their language. One of the authors writes “doesn’t a plea to be shielded from the hurtful effects of language sound like something other than what a strong, confident woman would issue?” On the other hand, the Ban Bossy campaign is also presented as oppressive since they aim to impose “censorship” which is after all “un-American” since the authors claim it is counter to the spirit of the First Amendment which protects freedom of expression.

I could spend lots of time criticizing these arguments, but that’s not my goal here. What I want to do is compare how the Post covered Ban Bossy to how it then later reported on the Chick-fil-a sign.

New York Post’s coverage of the Chick-fil-a sign

As of my writing of this, the Post has put out only one story on the Chick-fil-a sign incident: Salty Chick-fil-a manager makes list of forbidden words. I’ve made a number of observations about how the coverage of this incident, which is ostensibly a similar issue–a person trying to alter the language of those around them, differs from the Post‘s coverage of Ban Bossy.

The article says very little about the incident providing mainly just a summary of the sign. The piece seems to be filed as a piece of humor (with the tag “LOL”) in the Post’s Living section (the same category they filed one of the Ban Bossy stories under). The author does, however, provide this interpretation of the situation: “A Chick-fil-A manager is so irritated at his staff’s use of slang that he compiled a list of terms the employees are forbidden to use”. Ultimately, it seems we’re supposed to find humor in this manager and his quixotic struggle against the silly language of his employees.

What is curious to me is not really what the article says but what it doesn’t say. Since Post writers were so vehemently opposed to Ban Bossy for the reasons I noted above, it is curious that this incident which arguably involves all of the things Post writers find objectionable about Ban Bossy does not receive the same negative representation. Allow me to elaborate.

First, the problem is described as a manager being “irritated” about his staff, presumably mostly young people, using “slang”. While I think many have tried to justify this sign by imagining that the employees are using this language with customers, I find that highly unlikely. The terms and language that Eric the manager objects to seem indicative of a group of young people engaging in verbal play to help make the monotonous labor they’re performing more bearable. Furthermore, none of the words seem to be obviously targeted at the manager himself (although maybe he’s been wrongly accused of having Ebola). His irritation at the language itself then seems rather groundless. If others’ language irritates him this much, maybe he should just “see a shrink or visit a bar” (as one Post author recommended for Sheryl Sandberg).

Second, if the Ban Bossy solution is impractical and doomed to fail, then this manager’s sign as a means of policing young people’s verbal play is the very definition of futile. The incoherent list doesn’t even begin to scratch the surface of the playful language that young people currently use and it will never be able to keep up with the continued inside jokes that the Chick-fil-a employees will develop aided especially by viral internet videos.

Third, if bossy has usefulness, so do all of these terms. Together they serve a much wider variety of functions in young people’s social lives than bossy does.

Finally, if Ban Bossy involves “censorship”, then this manager clearly is engaging in censorship and actually has the authority to directly police the employees’ language.

Overall, I’m left wondering why the Post should be interested in this incident. What does the Post imagine that we will “LOL” at in this story? Is this a humorous anecdote about generational differences? Are we supposed to just laugh at the manager’s frustrations and the extreme lengths he has gone to to deal with them? If so, then why are we not also instructed to find his behavior “ridiculous” or “idiotic” perhaps even dangerous like we were in their stories about Sheryl Sandberg? Why is the Post defending the freedom of expression for people who are being asked to volunteer not to use a word that harm others but simply laughing along while young people’s verbal play is being policed by their manager?

In the end, it seems that the comparison of the Post‘s coverage of these events shows that when it comes to banning words, it matters whose words. The Post writers are telling us that while they’re offended at the suggestion that they might be asked to monitor their own discourse, they don’t feel the words of young people are worth protecting.


Thanks to Jack Hardy for bringing the Chick-fil-a sign story to my attention.

Tagged with: , , , , ,
Posted in Language and gender, Media discourse and media bias
One comment on “Banning whose words?: Coverage of the Chick-fil-a ‘slang’ ban and Ban Bossy
  1. A says:

    Another great post, Nic. Whose words and also the receiver/s of those words seem to have been differently valued in these pieces. (I also have a question: internet. I thought it is ‘supposed to be’ capitalized. Not true?)

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