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Image What's In a Name?

'Sticks and stones may break my bones but words will never harm me.' So goes the saying that suggests that we are impervious to words. But I defy anyone who has ever been at the wrong end of name-calling to deny the power of words.

Talking of sayings, 'least said, soonest mended' is a useful reminder that words matter and can hurt – or certainly delay healing.

PC: Political Correctness or Plain Civility?

Recent stories in the UK press have highlighted the use of pejorative or racist nicknames by certain high-profile figures. Public reactions to these stories have ranged from outrage to a blasé acceptance that while the right to free speech still holds, we are all fully entitled to label each other as we wish.

Carol Thatcher (daughter of the former British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher) recently lost her broadcasting job after comparing an international tennis player to the image of a golliwog on the jar of marmalade she used to eat as a child. Her comments, provocative enough to start with, caused a further furore in some quarters when she refused to apologise, on the grounds that she had made the remark as a joke.

Having briefly temped in my youth at The Daily Telegraph where Carol then worked as a journalist, I can't say that I was particularly surprised to learn of her idea of humour. And growing up with a mother who labeled Mandela a terrorist and ensured that golliwog festooned brands were the family’s jam of choice will probably do that for you.

A Rose by any Other Name

The other popular story that did the rounds recently related to the nickname 'Sooty' used by the Prince of Wales and his sons for an Indian polo-playing friend. To be fair, the nickname had been in use long before the princes became his friends and the gentleman in question claimed to enjoy the use of this name, ironically seeing this dubious nickname as a sign that he had 'arrived'. However, it does beg the question of how much dignity one has to surrender in order to be accepted into the upper echelons of British society.

I defy anyone who has ever been at the wrong end of name-calling to deny the power of words.

I remember vividly during my schooldays in London how one particular pupil insisted on calling me 'gorilla' although, with his bright red hair, Kevin was on pretty shaky ground himself in the acceptance stakes. But this was probably the point. Finding someone else to target probably took his mind off his own issues. And, as I was one of a total of 4 black students at that time, there was little chance of the kind of retribution that this name calling would earn him in most London schools today.

No Name Calling Week

While adults are more likely to take name calling in their stride – or resort to litigation if it gets beyond what's tolerable - the power of words is particularly poignant when used against young people.

Labelling a person, rather than the negative behaviour they may sometimes display, can impact for a lifetime. Try telling someone that they are stupid often enough and chances are high that they will spend the rest of their lives trying to live down to that label.

Numerous surveys cite the toll that name calling takes on young people, with studies on youth truancy, suicide, depression and drug and alcohol dependency showing clear links between verbal bullying and the ensuing alienation, persecution and isolation. Prejudice that starts out being displayed by just a name can grow quickly and name calling, left unchecked, can also spiral into physical assault and worse.

Bullies eventually leave the playground and move into offices and organisations.

An annual US initiative launched in 2004 – No Name-Calling Week – was established in response to this issue and involves a week of educational activities aimed at ending name-calling of all kinds. The movement aims to promote respect by providing schools with the tools and inspiration to launch an on-going dialogue about ways to eliminate bullying in their communities.

Zero Indifference

Words can hurt, and that's a fact. But since we can't stop people from speaking, we can and should ensure that when they do speak, a basic platform of respect and civility is non-negotiable.

Bullies eventually leave the playground and move into offices and organisations. Some rise to become managers and CEOs and, without a change in behaviour, such people go on to use the power of words at work to belittle, undermine and humiliate their colleagues and subordinates. Everyone deserves to work in a safe and respectful environment and, just as we encourage people to say 'no' to destructive behaviours and dependencies, our response to name calling – whether in jest or not – should be the same.

No Name Calling Week encourages school faculty and administrators to remember their legal obligation to prevent and end harassment, advises them on how to stop name-calling and guides them on how to intervene and educate.

Some of these principles could doubtless apply equally well to the workplace – and the British royal polo ground. And, if anyone knows where Kevin is today, they might want to pass on some of these pointers to him too.

In This Issue

In this issue, we celebrate the good news about Africa and the beautiful new book that tells the other side of the story.

We also look ahead to this month's 'must attend' event, the Pan-African Investment Climate Summit, which offers an opportunity to take the lead in investing in Zimbabwe.

April 15th was voting day for South Africans living abroad and we bring you the poignant reflections of two South Africans who cast their vote on that momentous day in 'Voting South Africa'.

In this month's Careers section, we tackle the toughest job interview questions and offer some tips on how to make the right impact in front of recruiters.

Also in Careers, our Careers Coach offers some advice on What's Wrong with Speaking in my Language at Work?.

We report on Silence the Violence, a remarkable South African crime prevention programme that has been successfully launched in Britain and hear from Lesley van Selm, its inspirational founder.

Headhunter and networking guru, Annemarie Dixon-Barrow, is our guest interviewee in this month's '5 Minute Interview' and shares some of the sources of her inspiration and success.

We go back into the ReConnect Africa Archives and bring you another chance to read the article Young, Gifted, Black – and an Engineer. The Association for Black Engineers talk about their role in promoting careers in engineering and business opportunities for Black Engineers.

June sees a wide range of exciting events taking place in the UK and overseas and our Events listing give you details of what's on this month.

As ever, we report on news from the UK and around the world and bring you an overview of news from across the African continent.

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ReConnect Africa Members' Forum

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