In all of our years in real estate, one of the most profound moments occurred when my partner Andrew Raskopf-Gunderman and I were reviewing marketing copy with an African American couple as we prepared their home for sale. As is standard practice, we used the term ‘master suite’ to describe the main bedroom in their home.
We felt a cascade of horror the moment they asked us not to use that term, explaining how it alienates them with its echoes of slavery. For decades, we’d used the description without pausing to think about its etymology. On the spot, we assured our clients that not only would we strike it from their copy, we would strike it from our practice — and do everything in our power to encourage others to do the same.
This powerful lesson learned went well beyond the immediate context of the connotations of slavery with one particular word. It was a potent reminder of how everyone does not share the same emotional response to particular words; what triggers one person often goes unnoticed by another. Speaking in personal terms, as a married gay consumer, I have always felt a twist in my gut when I hear a phrase like ‘his and her closets.’ As subtle as that may seem to others, this heteronormative term gives me a small stab of alienation whenever I hear it. I suspect I am not alone, and not just in terms of other LGBTQ individuals. Consider how this expression may play in the hearts and minds of single people or someone who may be recently divorced or widowed…and consider how easy it is to replace it with a more innocuous and inclusive term like “dual closets.”
Why does this matter from a business perspective? Our job as agents and marketers is to attract energy to a property. The search for a home is largely emotional, and for someone who is engaged in that search, being distracted from that endeavor to process alienation can upset the experience. If our word choices turn off any potential buyer, taking their emotional energy to a negative place, we are doing a disservice to both the buyer and the seller whom we represent.
Beyond that, as a human being, the last thing I want to do is remind someone, even subconsciously, of some kind of cultural pain or oppression. If we can prevent someone from having that experience by shifting a few words in our repertoire, what an easy way to bring positive energy into the lives of those whose experience deserves our empathy and respect. We all deserve the dignity of our experiences.
Beyond language and semantics, other details within real estate marketing may undermine our mission to draw energy toward a property.
Take a moment to consider cowhide rugs. We know why stagers turn to cowhide rugs — they’re chic, durable, relatively inexpensive, and they look great in photos. Still, every time I see one in the context of real estate marketing, I know it runs the risk of alienating someone who feels it violates the life and dignity of the animal from which it came. I am not asking you to engage in the conversation about whether or not that opinion has merit, but rather consider the choice from a marketing perspective. Do you want any potential buyer to feel a negative response to your marketing efforts, and do you want that consumer to associate that little stab in their gut with you and your brand?
We also have to hold ourselves accountable for the inconsistencies in our own preferences. When I stop and think about it, for example, I have to acknowledge that my approach to religious decor has been inconsistent. We have advised sellers that they stow Christian iconography such as crucifixes, but we’ve never suggested that Jewish clients remove mezuzahs from their doorways. Is it because I relate to the suppression of the Jewish faith versus what I perceive to be a more dominant Christian culture? Or is it just that the mezuzah is a quiet, subtly placed symbol that often goes unnoticed?
On a related note, are decorative Buddhas offensive? We use them all the time in our staging. We’ve been told, for some Buddhists, they are offensive, especially just the head of a Buddha. Has the decorative industry co-opted Buddhas to the point where we have become desensitized to the consumerization and possible degradation of that icon? I cannot say, but I think these are important questions to ask as we strive to be empathetic and, as agents, take seriously our responsibility to create the most welcoming environment for the homes we sell.
Some snafus have caught us completely off-guard. A few months ago we staged a home with a large silk screened image of Audrey Horne, the iconic character from Twin Peaks, lighting a cigarette. To some of our team members, the image was eye-catching and “dope,” but during the brokers tour for the property, several agents grumbled about glorifying smoking as they passed by. What some people took as a hip homage to an iconic television series others read as a tone-deaf celebration of a leading cause of cancer.
When we stage homes and draft copy, there are a host of cultural and experiential factors that should be considered as we aim to create an environment that will appeal to the widest possible audience. It is worth taking a few moments to think about the cultural assumptions that might lurk in your collateral. People are looking to project their lives into these spaces — to find a sense of safety, well-being and most importantly, home. Let’s not upset their process with unthoughtful and unconscious choices that can easily be avoided.