Words Matter: How the Words We Use in Our Marketing Can Make a Huge Difference

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Sticks and stones may break my bones,
But words will never hurt me.

Appearing as early as 1830, by some sources, and in a popular 1872 book called Tappy’s Chicks: and Other Links Between Nature and Human Nature, I remember chanting this as a grade-schooler, hell-bent on letting those class bullies know that my friends and I were impervious to their meanness.

However, as we can see from the news and what is happening in our country right now: Words Matter.

The words we choose paint a picture; you don’t have to be an eloquent speaker or a prolific writer to make a difference with your word choices.

At one of my first real estate conferences, before I was a licensed real estate agent, I attended a marketing session in which the attendees were encouraged to think about their word choices. This sounded exciting, but it didn’t end up being what I had hoped. It was more about teaching the REALTORS® in that room to be spin doctors: say “price adjustment” instead of “price reduction,” the agent at the front of the classroom crowed (a little too proud of himself); psychologically, supposedly, it would be the spoon full of sugar the seller needed to make that price reduction go down a little smoother. The rational piece of my brain was screaming: it’s still a price reduction — let’s call a spade a spade, discuss that maybe the price is a little high, get the reduction signed, and get on with things! They also touched on the “hidden meanings” of real estate speak: “cozy” means small (thanks for ruining one of my favorite words; large homes can feel cozy, too!) or “needs TLC” means a shack that’s falling down (no! that’s a tear-down! sometimes a house just really needs a little TLC!). To read more of the words seemingly hijacked by the real estate world, click here (and get ready to roll your eyes…at least, I do).

(To be fair, they also made some good points: we often use what I call REALTOR®-speak with consumers and expect them to know what we’re talking about without explaining or defining them. We should rethink the use of words and phrases such as CMA — most consumers don’t know what CMA stands for, let alone what a Comparative Market Analysis is and what it means to them. We need to get better at explaining words and terms, like escrow, due diligence, appraisal contingency, and literally every designation and certification that we reference, and simply be better about the education process for the better of the consumer and for the betterment of our communication and communication skills.)

I argue, however, that those aren’t the words that truly matter. 

Yes, we need to speak plainly and clearly so that our clients understand the acronyms and abbreviations we use; however, we can contribute to the advancement of our industry by subscribing to a few simple changes.

One big phrase that is up for discussion right now — what I’m seeing in my social media feeds and hearing in conversation — is “Master Bedroom.” This isn’t a new conversation by any stretch. Still, it’s a talking point again, and its appropriateness for its possible gender- and racial bias is at the forefront again and getting more attention. For good reason.

On June 17, RESO (the Real Estate Standards Organization) posted that they’d be further exploring alternative terms for this potentially problematic phrase. Their look at the historical usage of the phrase as a real estate term reads:

“The term “master” seems to have been associated with room details since the 1920s. Some view it as offensive because the term is also associated with slavery. It has also been said to be male-centric, which is historically accurate. In research thus far, we haven’t found a historical reference to the “master bedroom” associated with slavery when it was originally applied to bedrooms and baths. Further research is welcome, and the lack of historical relation alone does not negate member concerns or perceptions of real estate terminology today.

Over the years, there have been calls to change the terminology. Some home builders began using the term “owner’s bedroom” in recent years. There have been disagreements about which alternative names would appropriately convey the same idea. Again, the limitations of these suggested alternatives do not negate the credibility of the overall concerns of those suggesting a change.”

Whether you believe this phrase is offensive racially or from a gender perspective and whether or not your MLS immediately jumps to action (a few have, but only a small percentage), I put forth another option: when you have a choice (i.e., in a description you are writing), simply choose another word. Main Bedroom. Owner’s Suite. Principal Bedroom.  You may still have to choose “Master Bedroom” from the drop-down menu on your MLS input, but you can also change, in a small way, the presentation of your listing by making on small word change. Remember that it may seem small to you but may make a big difference to how someone else views your listing, your social views, and how tuned in you are to the current dialogue.

I also urge you to think about other classifications that have a hard-and-fast place in our vernacular simply because “it’s how it’s always been.” I think twice every time I choose “his and hers closets,” thinking of being sensitive to same-sex couples or even the single buyer who may not have a “him” or a “her” in their lives. Avoid calling a room a “nursery”: in a strict sense, familial status is a Fair Housing protected class, but on a social awareness level, think of the possible emotional impact of using that term with a couple who perhaps wants — but cannot have — children.

Is it possible that, in some cases, we may be overthinking our vocabulary, making changes that we, personally, may not think are “necessary” or are, to be more extreme, “ridiculous,” or “ludicrous,” or “just plain silly” (NOTE: these comments are taken from a few different Facebook posts on the topic of the master bedroom discussion — these words are in quotation marks because they are not my own). Sure, in some cases — such as my personal feelings about “Jack-and-Jill bathrooms (I just think it’s weird, okay???) — perhaps; however, I would also argue that, in most cases, if a discussion is popping up again and again, there must be a good reason for it, and it bears thoughtful discussion and pondering. To paraphrase the quote from RESO above, our personal feelings about the issue should not “negate the credibility of the overall concerns of those suggesting a change.

As much as I loathe the now-woefully overused and definition-hijacked word “woke” as a barometer of one’s degree of social awareness (it also bothers me from a grammatical perspective, but that’s another post for another day), I don’t disagree with the concept, the idea (and ideal) of being more socially aware and open to being sensitive to and empathizing with the feelings of others, of being aware of how our words — in everyday conversation and interaction but also our marketing — affect others.

Let’s commit, as an industry, to continuing the important conversations, and to spending some time thinking about the words we use and how what we say and how we communicate in our marketing impacts those in the world around us.