Earlier this week, Mitt Romney had some explaining to do when a video surfaced of him of speaking at a private fundraiser this past May, saying that 47 percent of Americans "are dependent upon government, believe they are victims, believe the government has a responsibility to take care of them, believe they are entitled to health care, to food, to housing, to you name it … These are people who pay no income tax … and so my job is not to worry about those people. I’ll never convince them they should take personal responsibility and care for their lives.”
The video, released by liberal magazine Mother Jones, sent Democrats by the truckload reaffirming previous assertions that the GOP nominee is out of touch with the common man. And it sent the Romney campaign playing defense yet again, this time having to explain the candidate's seemingly insensitive comments. To be sure, it was not a banner moment in the Romney campaign. But it was a moment that should serve as a reminder of the power of our words, and that at any moment what we say can and will be used against us. More specifically, it should serve as a reminder of the following when we start to open our mouths on the job:
1. You never know who's listening
Have you ever shared an elevator with two other people you don't know who are openly talking badly about a third person you do know? Have you ever been in a meeting when a coworker not present whom you're friendly with is getting bashed? Have you ever overheard in the men's or ladies' room a conversation that obviously you're not meant to hear? These situations are more common than you might think, and if you're one of the talkers and not the listeners in these situations, you could find yourself in similar warm waters that Romney found himself in earlier this week. The bottom line is if you're not 100 percent sure who might be listening to (and perhaps recording) what you're saying, then you best be saying things you'd say to just about anyone.
2. Get your facts straight before speaking
We've all likely done it (I know I have). We start making a point and, in order to back it up, we embellish or exaggerate with some less-than-perfect (or even downright false) statistics. It's a common tactic made in workplace meetings, especially when speaking in front of several people. It was also a common tactic made recently at a certain political convention in a very southern state, as well as one used by Mitt Romney when speaking at the fundraiser in question. David Brooks, a conservative columnist, writes in a recent The New York Times op-ed:
[Romney's] comment suggests a few things. First, it suggests that he really doesn’t know much about the country he inhabits. Who are these freeloaders? Is it the Iraq war veteran who goes to the V.A.? Is it the student getting a loan to go to college? Is it the retiree on Social Security or Medicare? … The people who receive the disproportionate share of government spending are not big-government lovers. They are Republicans. They are senior citizens. They are white men with high school degrees. As Bill Galston of the Brookings Institution has noted, the people who have benefited from the entitlements explosion are middle-class workers, more so than the dependent poor.
Other papers, including the Washington Post and Wall Street Journal, pointed out that more than half of the 47 percent Romney mentioned in fact do pay taxes. They pay payroll taxes at a 15 percent rate (a higher rate, some pointed out, than Romney pays). According to the Journal:
[Romney's] comments could be read as unflattering to Obama supporters broadly and to millions of people who hold jobs and in many cases pay payroll taxes, but who don't earn enough to pay the income tax. Some of those people receive tax benefits that have been championed by both parties, such as credits for children, which wipe out their tax burdens.
In any case, the point is when you stretch the truth or start creating it to get your point across, there's a very good possibility it will come back to bite you in the end. So, the next time you're speaking up, giving a report, sending an email, make sure to fact check your argument before opening your mouth or hitting send.
3. Take personal responsibility for your words
When you're caught speaking or sending an email in the workplace whose message ruffles some feathers, there's little use in trying to say, "Well, I didn't really mean it. What I really meant was …" Rather, it's best to own up to your words, stand behind them, don't hide. Now, in the case of the Romney video, in Romney's defense, the GOP nominee didn't exactly back down from his words. Instead, he admitted that his comments were "not elegantly stated, let me put it that way" and that he "was speaking off the cuff." Still, Romney did attempt to twist them in a news conference called after the tape went public, saying that he wants to help "all Americans—all Americans—have a bright, prosperous future." Which, judging by his comments about the 47 entitled percent whom he will never convince to take "personal responsibility and care for their lives," seemed to be a stretch.
Thurston Howell Romney (NYT)
Romney Video Crowds Out Bid to Sharpen His Message (WSJ)