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The Survival of the Prudes

April 7, 2011
Prude n. One who is excessively concerned with being or appearing to  be proper, modest, or righteous.

[French, short for prude femme, virtuous woman : Old French prude, feminine of prud, virtuous; see  proud + French femme, woman (from Latin fmina; see feminine).]   Word History: Being called a prude is rarely considered a compliment, but if we dig into the history of the word prude, we find that it has a noble past. The change for the worse took place in French. French prude first had a good sense, “wise woman,” but apparently a woman could be too wise or, in the eyes of some, too observant of decorum and propriety. Thus prude took on the sense in French that was brought into English along with the word, first recorded in 1704. The French word prude was a shortened form of prude femme (earlier in Old French prode femme), a word modeled on earlier preudomme, “a man of experience and integrity.” The second part of this word is, of course, homme, “man.” Old French prod, meaning “wise, prudent,” is from Vulgar Latin prdis with the same sense. Prdis in turn comes from Late Latin prde, advantageous,” derived from the verb prdesse, “to be good.” Despite this history filled with usefulness, profit, wisdom, and integrity, prude has become a term of reproach.

from The American Heritage® Dictionary of the English Language

Can you be a prude and effectively work in Human Resources? If you’re excessively self righteous and overly modest, can you truly handle the variety of situations that arise when working with people and situations?

Anyone following this blog knows that I just returned from attending our state Conference on Human Resources.  With 300 plus attendees, there were bound to be a variety of opinions on everything from the food to the temperature of the convention center (“it’s too hot!”; “it’s too cold!”).  And obviously, differing opinions on the topics, speakers and overall conference experience.  But a few comments from attendees stuck with me:

  • “I found it distasteful that the speaker (an attorney) referenced male and female genitals” (referring to a session dealing with FMLA)
  • “The music filled with profanity that was played in the general session room was inappropriate for a professional conference.” (referring to a rousing sports-themed song regularly played at stadium venues)
  • “Cursing is not appropriate.”

While everyone is entitled to their own opinion, it made me wonder – HOW do these overly sensitive HR pros deal with the day-to-day issues that arise in any workplace?  Have they never dealt with a sexual harassment complaint where they’ve had to ask questions about intimacies and genitals and sexual activities? Have they refused to enter into an interactive discussion with an employee with a disability because the talk about body-parts made them squeamish?  Has an employee never cursed at them?   Has not a single foul word ever been uttered by the Sales Manager, CEO or other leader when winning – or losing – a big customer?

I’m not saying people shouldn’t live their lives according to their personal morals, beliefs and standards.  It’s a wise and good thing to set standards for behavior for yourself and your children.  But get a grip on reality when you’re interacting in the real world.

Let’s face it, even the HR Managers at the most righteous, god-fearing organizations have had to deal with sex, cursing and rock-n-roll.

9 Comments leave one →
  1. April 7, 2011 7:03 am

    Sadly I think HR attracts people who often want to “rule” which means they apply their standards to others. Conversely, successful HR people are able to see things from different view points.

    Which tells a lot about the profession…..don’t you think?

  2. April 7, 2011 7:26 am

    Great post Robin. No HR cannot be righteous or judgemental or be a prude. We have to have the gift of “Balance” Our work is to deliver sensible thought. We are not the “police” of the organization rather we are the custodians of business enthusiasm.

  3. EBB permalink
    April 7, 2011 8:41 am

    Wouldn’t you agree that handling profanity and vulgarity in HR issues and actively using them or promoting them during a professional conference are separate things? Wouldn’t you agree that choosing to model traditional class and civility and being naive are also separate things?

    I believe there are those that think it best to leave out the colorful metaphors in a professional setting in order not to distract from the real message. Others don’t mind them at all. I wonder if they’re necessary for truly compelling presentations (sometimes yes…ex. Mike Rowe talking about castrating sheep at the Entertainment Gathering…an excellent presentation btw).

    But are the folks who commented truly prudish and overly sensitive or can we only guess about their real motives? As an open-minded HR professional, I might try to respect their views, though different than my own, and even celebrate those views as potentially enlightening/valuable/helpful points of view.

    But maybe their comments impose moral standards on others who don’t share them. On the other hand, maybe those who were cursing and referencing genitals were imposing their moral standards on others who don’t share them. What I’m frightened to hear you say is that the prude’s views actually aren’t appreciated. Not by you. Not by the real world. And that these unappreciated souls need to buck up, back off, and open their eyes to reality…and perhaps find another profession (though as you said, they can’t even hide in religious institutions).

    I’m afraid you’re condemning those with standards that differ from yours as self-righteous, overly-sensitive, naive prudes. I suppose class and civility are subjective and, from your post, open to ridicule. But I challenge you to think of the many humble, appropriately-sensitive, street-smart, professionals who prefer to live by a more traditional code of conduct. You may trash them if you want; we are all entitled to our opinions. But in that case, I’ll have to wonder if you’re just pretending to be an open-minded HR professional.

    For more info on other potentially old, outdated, naive, unsuccessful prudes (that some still respect and try to model), see George Washington and his Rules of Civility and Ben Franklin and his Virtues to Live By.

    • Robin Schooling permalink*
      April 7, 2011 9:52 am

      Thanks for the thoughts. And truly – I do agree that all views are welcome and only enrich the experience for all of us. I didn’t intend to imply that a prudish view is not allowable or cannot be part of the whole; diversity of thought IS good.

      What I found ‘amusing’ (for want of a better word), however, in some of these comments from conference attendees was a lack of understanding of context. It’s certainly not as if the conference sessions were an out-of-control saturnalian fest of debauchery and vile language. Music playing from FTC approved/radio play lists doesn’t strike me as something that’s inappropriate for a conference setting. A speaker who is passionate about a subject and lets attendees know ahead of time that he’s passionate and may have an off-color word or two, is, to my mind – REAL, HONEST and AUTHENTIC.

      And when an employment attorney, sharing details on specific cases and legislative actions, is “called out” for sharing the documented details of some FMLA-related scenarios, THAT is when I feel as if I’ve walked into cloud-cuckoo land. In this case, referencing genitals had nothing to do with, as you put it, “imposing moral standards” on others. I’ve had to, as part of HR investigations over the years, gird my loins (nothing sexual implied) and delve into topics that made me squirm. I’ve had to question employees and witnesses about all sorts of sexual peccadilloes and fetishes, bodily functions, body parts, foul language, and off-color comments. It’s part of the job – it’s part of HOW people live in the real world – and it’s part of what they bring with them into the workplace.

      If HR folks can’t hang with doing that or hearing those things .. I question how one can be effective when placed in uncomfortable situations.

      I certainly do not advocate the elimination of civility. Politeness, compassion and caring – admirable AND desirable way to interact with others.

      • EBB permalink
        April 7, 2011 10:58 am

        I hear you saying that you advocate “politeness, compassion and caring” and “an admirable AND desirable way to interact with others.” But your article calls these “prudes” “excessively self righteous and overly modest” and “overly sensitive.” Is that what you mean by polite? Would the commenters feel that their views were valued if they read your article and were told to “get a grip?” Would they find your response polite, compassionate and caring (even if you thought their views were ludicrous)? (I don’t think that was your point.)

        As for real, honest and authentic, couldn’t you apply those terms to the prude’s comments? Why is the honest presenter applauded and the honest attendee condemned? I think you could also apply those terms to your article. But I wouldn’t call the article civil.

      • Brian Caraher permalink
        April 7, 2011 11:17 pm

        I think the honest presenter is applauded because he/she is trying to teach or share something meaningful. Very often the “honest attendee” is not so concerned about improving their environment or being of some beacon of beneficial thought to those around them as much as they are either strumming their own egos or fulfilling the perverse yet common to desire to be destructive towards that which they do not understand.

        The truth is that we always seem to find ourselves amongst someone who has a need to find something to complain about. While in their minds, their attacks are making them appear to be more intelligent, tasteful, classy, and a holder of high values, it is not working that way in my mind. I think a true holder of high values would have quietly expressed their concerns to those in charge of the convention afterwards. I think that far more distasteful than a few instances of adult language among adults is people who are willing to sacrifice the positive energy at the convention in order to express their own superiority or “holier than thou” complex.

        While I am certain not all “honest attendees” fit this profile I have developed, my ego certainly would not have been large enough to think that my opinions of them would have been worth expressing while attending the convention. After all, I am sure the goals of the convention did not include people attacking each other. However, I might, in a very small way, attempt to eliminate this negative energy finding its way in to next year’s convention by calling out these “honest attendees” for being so shocked and offended by content they most definitely already encountered in not only their everyday lives, but their everyday work lives.

      • EBB permalink
        April 8, 2011 11:15 pm


        According to the article, the attendees didn’t attack anyone and they weren’t shocked; they merely stated a preference for leaving out profanity/vulgarity at a professional conference. There was no name calling, just opinion. Had they said that the conference was run by idiots, that would be a personal attack. In fact, if anyone is resorting to personal attacks, it is you and the author of the article who went beyond opinion into name calling several times.

        We do not have the context or understanding of their motives. Even if we did and they are as you suspect they might be, it amazes me that you have set yourself as judge, making yourself superior and holier than the attendees by condeming their behavior as perverse, ignorant, and egotistical.

        Dealing with complaints is as standard in HR as dealing with profanity/vulgarity. In fact, these suggestions may have been solicited as a way to improve the conference in the future. I was hopeful that the HR professional would deal with these complaints as they would be dealt with in the workplace: in an open-minded, unbiased, polite way — considering point of view, even if it’s foreign to their own, and certainly not mocking, demeaning, or, as you suggest, publically shaming the source of the complaint. In this case, I was wrong.

      • Brian Caraher permalink
        April 9, 2011 2:22 am

        I am just an interested reader, not an HR professional, and I did not intend for my viewpoint to come off as such. I was not in attendance to the conference, and certainly cannot judge behavior I did not witness. I can only assume that the behavior of those we are discussing was negative enough to warrant the writing of the original article.

        My opinions towards those who complained are only based on my past familiarity with those who, in the face of a positive social experience, love to find a way to sneak negativity in through sometimes a mask of righteousness. As I mentioned, I am sure not all of the complainers fit this profile. However, I did not feel it appropriate to worsen the experience of the other attendees by voicing disapproval during the event.

        You certainly have the most professional and politically correct stance in this matter. You are clearly both intelligent and skilled in your line of work. If this issue were being discussed in the workplace, I am certain none, including the original author and I would have any argument to your viewpoint. However, I would hope that on occasion, in a less formal forum, people would be able to express exactly how they feel towards issues in their workplace. This expression may include the use of labels (or “name calling”) in order to more precisely describe one’s attitude towards the behavior of others. Is it really so harmful to “keep it real” in a sense while doing so in the proper venue?

  4. April 7, 2011 9:09 am

    genitals, profane music, and f’bombs are part of our daily reality outside of the workplace…why should it be any different within it? unfortunately we are, by virtue of our roles, beholden to what the “reasonable person” believes is appropriate. i unfortunately don’t typically constitute the “reasonable person.” and even more unfortunately, the courts and other regulatory agencies have demonstrated their definition of the “reasonable person” to be more like that prude. sad, but true.

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