Saturday, November 24, 2007

Ho Ho Hustle!

I just had a post-Thanksgiving get together with my family. The news item on everyone's lips was that Santas everywhere have been banned from saying "Ho ho ho." Apparently the onomatopoeia "ho" could be offensive to women and Santa shouldn't be heard saying that! My family was aghast. Was nothing sacred? This is political correctness gone too far! How, they asked, could anyone be so bold?

How, I asked, could anyone believe that story?

I didn't say anything at the time, because I didn't have any sources on hand, but my skeptical alarm bells were ringing. First, there was never an identified antagonist behind this ban, only a vague "them." To me that smacks of urban legend. Second, the scale of this story is implausible. The idea of changing a lovable character's catchphrase simply because of an alternate slang definition is silly. There may be a few (very few) people who think it's a good idea, but instituting some general "ban" would never gain traction. So my prediction was either, a) someone had suggested this as a "What's next in the War on Christmas?" hypothetical that got twisted into a ban, or b) a small group made a small suggestion that someone somewhere might want to consider thinking about changing "ho ho ho," and it got picked up by media sources as a ban.

Upon reaching home, my first step was a quick Snopes search. Sadly, no results. Either this hasn't reached bona fide urban legend status, or it wasn't in a popular chain email. I moved on.

Step two was a Google News search, with the search string "ho ho ho". I caught the trail here. Most of the results are editorials in several newspapers. One common thread: all the stories mention the flap is over Santas in Australia, not America. Eventually I found an article mentioning the original source: Australian newspaper The Daily Telegraph.

This article does mention a ban, saying

Santas across Sydney are rebelling against attempts to ban their traditional greeting of "ho, ho, ho" in favour of "ha, ha, ha".

They also cite the motivation being the alternate definition of the word "ho,"
One would-be Santa has told The Daily Telegraph he was taught not to use "ho, ho, ho" because it was too close to the American slang for prostitute.

Mixed in with the emotional anecdotes is the real story, however.
Recruitment firm Westaff - which supplies hundreds of Santas across the country - has told its trainees that the "ho ho ho" phrase could frighten children and could even be derogatory to women.

A Westaff manager Sari Hegarty clarifies the situation:
Part of our advice to our Santas is that they should be mindful of children having their first Santa experience.
We ask our Santas to try techniques such as lowering their tone of voice and using 'ha, ha, ha' to encourage the children to come forward and meet Santa. We wish you and your family a very merry Christmas.

On their website, Westaff has statements regarding this incident. In a press release, they assure "the public we celebrate Santa's signature saying, 'ho, ho, ho,' and no directive forbidding the language, for any reason, was issued by the company." A longer document (PDF) is full of information on the company's stance; it is, needless to say, not against the phrase "ho ho ho."

This sounds much more plausible. A Santa training company told its wannabe helpers that a hearty "Ho ho ho!" might start the little ones crying, and they should perhaps consider saying "Ha ha ha!" in a softer tone. This sounds nothing like a ban, just a suggestion that got blown out of proportion. Even the accusations that the alternate definition of "ho" was a motivation came from non-Westaff sources, so I consider them suspect.

How, then, did this myth get started? Knowing that no ban ever existed or was attempted by anyone, let's read the first few lines of the Daily Telegraph article again.
Santa fury at 'ho, ho, ho' ban
HE is an unlikely revolutionary but this Christmas, Santa is a rebel with a claus.
He is having the last laugh on political correctness - and it's a great big fat belly laugh.
Santas across Sydney are rebelling against attempts to ban their traditional greeting of "ho, ho, ho" in favour of "ha, ha, ha".

"Santa fury"? A "revolutionary"? Santas are "rebelling"? Where did they get any of that? The Westaff sources are quoted in the article, so it should have been clear that this story had nothing backing it up. However, the authors wasted no time in going far beyond the evidence, reporting trumped-up anecdotes to combat "the latest example of political correctness gone mad." This is simply irresponsible journalism. And most other news outlets just parroted the original story with no investigation at all. Shame on them.

Not all media outlets are guilty, however. I did find a few sources questioning this story, and they deserve mention. Sign on San Diego initially reported the story credulously, then retracted a few hours later as new information came in. Kudos to them. And Canadian news site CBC.CA ran a great piece pointing out flaws in the article and The Daily Telegraph itself. Good going for them.

So next time you're enjoying a little turkey and hear a story that doesn't sound quite right, file it away. Chances are you could probe the surface just a little and find something a lot more plausible.


Richard said...


I did a bit of work for a different Santa recruitment agency. We were always asked by them if they were allowed to say, "Ho ho ho," or if it was no longer permitted.

That got old, fast.