Why “It Isn’t Personal” No Longer Translates

Peeling back the meanings and motivations behind the commonly used phases, “It isn’t personal” and “Why are you taking it so personally?”, I’m reminded of two movies where the quote stands out most.

The older and far more prominent one – “The Godfather” (1972) – attributes the quote directly to the crime family soon-to-be-boss Michael Corleone, who, in justifying his plan to murder a corrupt police chief, says, “It’s not personal. It’s strictly business.

And so the saying became engrained in popular culture 45 years ago – and since picked up for convenience’s sake by people from all walks of life as a sort of Teflon of moral deflection.

It essentially connotes that one is free of moral responsibility in hurting someone – even to destroy their world, so to speak – as long as it’s for a business purpose (the mechanics of making a dollar) and not personal ones (the way they look, talk, walk, dress, etc., . . . or any inherently personal trait irrelevant to the “business purpose”).

It’s an invisible armor carried into all kinds of uncomfortable workplace scenarios: the boss who’s letting an employee go, the key staff member announcing a resignation, the selection team choosing one service provider or new-hire over another, a conglomerate buying out a company and then “rightsizing” the staff.

Someone is going to have hurt feelings. But get over it. It’s not personal – it’s just business. We’ve all been there, right?  But in truth, how many of us didn’t feel at least some serious tinges of personal anxiety, stress or even hurt, in these “just business” scenarios?

Which leads me to my next movie example, “You’ve Got Mail” (1998) . . . the Meg Ryan / Tom Hanks movie that hit cineplexes nearly 20 years ago (Mercy! Has it been that long?!), when America Online (AOL) was among the most prominent online communities, and those commonplace aol.com e-mail accounts happily intoned, “You’ve got mail!” (hyperlinked here, since there’s an entire younger generation who’ve likely never heard it, much less the sound of a dial-up).

But I digress.

My favorite quote from the movie was from the Meg Ryan character (Kathleen), whose small, family-owned corner bookshop is put out of business by Tom Hank’s character (Joe), the head of a large, corporate, impersonal chain that moves in down the block.

Joe (commenting on his company putting Kathleen’s shop out of business): “It wasn’t personal.”

 Kathleen: “What is that supposed to mean?!  I’m so sick of that!  All that means, is that it wasn’t personal to you.  But it was personal to me. It’s personal to a lot of people. What’s so wrong with being personal, anyway? 

 Joe: “Ummm….”

 Kathleen: “For whatever else anything is, it ought to begin by being personal.”

That’s some amazing dialogue, written by the late Nora Ephron and her sister Delia.

And how prescient for a movie in 1998, for what was to come these decades past . . . with social media and online interactions blurring and even eradicating the lines of demarcation for personal meaning, feeling and impact to others, in things we say and do, both within and outside the online sphere.

It is personal – all of it.  It’s simpler to understand as an all-or-nothing. And it’s ALL.

There can be personal impact in any business decision, just as there are personal ramifications to all big decisions in life.

In cases when we have to voice a grievance in order to right what we feel is a wrong, both sides of the interaction – the perceived transgressor and the aggrieved – have to come to the table knowing that the situation likely has personal baggage attached for both sides.

After all, when we question someone else’s ideas, judgment, quality of product / service, past behaviors, relationships, statements or misstatements . . . all of these things can threaten the value and meaning of that person’s very identity. It doesn’t get much more personal than that.

Conversely, when we as potential transgressors tell someone who’s aggrieved that they are wrong in their grievance, that we don’t acknowledge it as having any validity, or, essentially, that we don’t care, it can also have a personal impact – even a de-humanizing effect.  And that’s horribly personal, too.

Of course, we can make an already-personal situation more so by interjecting criticisms that are off-topic, irrelevant to the grievance at hand, or of a more personal-attack nature, like, “Oh yeah??? . . . well, you’re ugly and your momma dresses you funny,” to recount the schoolyard jibes of yesteryear.

With some level of maturity, we can discern the lines of fair game and fair play, but, alas, sometimes we don’t.  To make matters more complicated, one person’s idea of a relevant, non-personal criticism can turn another person’s most closely held sense of self upside-down.

What are those business-versus-personal boundaries for you? How do you seek to avoid threats to others’ personal boundaries when voicing a legitimate “business” issue or criticism?

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Mary Beth West
Mary Beth West, APR, has more than 20 years’ experience in strategic communications. Mary Beth’s award-winning work has included creation and implementation of national media relations campaigns, employee communications programs, consumer and business-to-business marketing initiatives and crisis preparedness systems.

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