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Open Letter to Celebrities

Dear Celebrities,

I have your best interests in mind when I tell you that it’s time to wake-up. Celebrity “foot in mouth disease” is epidemic and fans are upset that it’s getting worse. Anyone in the public eye is a celebrity today.

From Tim Hardaways’ outrageous “I hate gay people” tirade, to Michael Richard’s racist rant, Mel Gibson’s drunken anti-semitism, Senator Allen’s election-losing “macaca” comment, Isaiah Washington’s verbal blunder, Harvard President Larry Summer’s career-suicide gender-based comment, Paris Hilton’s snappy slurs and Senator Biden’s communication missteps, people are losing faith in our icons of success and hope. Maybe this is a good thing for us, maybe not, but either way celebrities are losing our respect.

Are you celebrities more racist today than you were 10 years ago or 1 year ago?
I don’t think so; I’ll give you that. But times have changed and you better get used to it. Nowadays, you are never off-camera, your comments are never off-the-record and if you don’t like these facts of celebrity life then change your life and get out of the spotlight. While non-celebrities have the privilege to rant and rave, make a funny joke and tell their friends what hey really think without ending up in the gossip columns or the evening news, you are in the spotlight and you need to be better than that.

My dear celebrities, I am being harsh on you, but I will also give you some practical advice that has worked for me. For those of you who intentionally make prejudiced comments, it is not 1950 anymore. You are a lost cause and your career will soon see the end of the line, so give up now.

For the majority of you who accidentally put your foot in your mouth,
there is hope.

For starters, let me suggest a 3-step approach to preventing celebrity foot-in-mouth disease:
STEP 1: Find the land mines before you step on them. You’d be surprised at how many explosive words there are out there. For example, “articulate” is not a word to use to describe African-Americans. “Faggot” is not funny. Judith Regan’s alleged comment about the “cabal” of Jews is antagonistic and anti-semitic. Words have multiple meanings so learn the meanings before you say the word. Anyone in the public eye should make it a point to meet with groups of people from different races, religions, associations, etc. to have an honest conversation about which words call up offensive meanings.

As a professional speaker on communication and persuasion, I gave a presentation to a group of Statewide Athletic Administrators and I learned (before my talk) that “gym teacher” is a hot-button offensive term. The correct respectful label is “physical education teacher.” Unfortunately, another speaker at this conference (a politician who shall remain nameless) hadn’t done her due diligence and ended up offending the audience. Before my Keynote Address to a tri-state Realtor® conference, I learned that it is an insult to call a Realtor® a “real estate agent” because Realtors® have additional training and a membership in a prestigious association. Whew. I was glad I had maneuvered around that land mine.

STEP 2: Do not give uncomplimentary compliments. You do this when you act surprised that a person is skilled at something. For example, do not say, “She is really intelligent. I never expected that.” Nor should you say, “You speak English so well, for a foreigner,” nor “He’s so athletic, for a gay person.” And of course, the kicker is when you act surprised that an African-American is excellent at something. All in all, it is always an insult when we make a comment that includes the idea (whether it’s just a thought or spoken) that someone is good at something, “for a (fill-in-the-blank) person.”

STEP 3: When you use an adjective, be specific. If you say someone is “clean,” explain what you mean. If you say someone is “savvy,” don’t just leave it at that because savvy could be a good or bad word. If you call someone “evil,” a commonly used word in politics, give an example of a specific example of an evil decision or action, and if you aren’t willing to give an example, then don’t use the word. It’s offensive.

I’d like to think that this approach will help cure the epidemic. I have a lot more advice, but I’m not sure that everyone wants to hear it. In fact, I get the sense that we’re only on the cusp of offensive times.
I predict that 2007 will see more blunders in the news and posted on YouTube we’ve had in the last 3 years combined.
Now go ahead and talk at your own risk.

Your biggest fan,
Laurie Puhn, J.D.
Television host, “i on New York” on WPXN-TV
Author, “Instant Persuasion: How to Change Your Words to Change Your Life” (Penguin)

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