When British Prime Minister Theresa May called for a general election recently, who knew the political discourse in Britain would turn so negative and so quickly? But it did. The two candidates — May and Labour Party leader Jeremy Corbyn — are in a heated, bitter battle for the hearts and souls of the British people with many important issues (Brexit being the biggest one) at stake. The candidates' teammates and supporters are doing what they can to undermine their competitors.
So much so that in a column for the Sun, current Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson said that Corbyn is an enormous threat to the country and...hold on to your hats, everyone...referred to the current leader of the Labour Party as a "mutton-headed old mugwump" and "an essentially benign Islingtonian herbivore."
These are some pretty harsh things to call your competitor, and it's caused quite a stir in the U.K. I'm not going to address the "Islingtonian herbivore" slander because I have relatives that live near there and don't want to drag their names in the mud. But a "mutton-headed old mugwump?" Good Lord, Mr. Johnson, have you no decency? Is this what we should all be doing — referring to our competitors in the same derogatory way in the heat of battle for a customer order? Let's hope not. Few people can get away with this kind of behavior.
But Boris Johnson can. He can because he's a savant. For decades, people have ridiculed his odd mannerisms and politically incorrect behavior (remember he, when Mayor of London, was the guy who got stuck on a zip wire in mid-air). But time after time, the Oxford-educated Johnson has proven his opponents wrong. Able to speak five languages and a lover of Latin, he spent years in Parliament and was a popular and successful Mayor of London. His tenure so far as Foreign Secretary — a job post that caused an uproar when first announced — has been met with grumbling approval by most of the electorate. Only the ruffled-looking Johnson, because he's brilliant and British and hilarious, can conjure up a slander against his competitor that is actually historically accurate.
Yup. It's accurate. A companion analysis that was also published in the Sun reminded us that the word "mugwump" actually derives "from an Algonquin Native American word mugquomp, which means an important person," and in the 1884 U.S. elections was used as a dig at those "mugwumps" who refused to support a Republican political candidate named James G. Baine. A "muttonhead" has its place in the Collins Dictionary as "a stupid or ignorant person."
But let's face it, only the British can be that clever when putting down their competitors. We're not. We don't have the intelligence, the wit, the dry sense of humour (and, yes, out of respect, I'm spelling humour the British way) to make such a claim about our competition. When we say something negative about our competition, it comes out negative. As Americans, we tend to use smaller, dumber words that often betray our state college educations. We sound petty. And the results are never good because our negative comments wind up being off-putting for a prospective customer.
The lesson? You're not British and you're not Boris Johnson, so never, ever call your competitor a "mutton-headed old mugwump." In fact, don't ever say a bad word about your competitor when talking to a prospective customer. Be professional. Present your differences. Take the high road and show respect, regardless of how that competitor has treated you in the past. Otherwise, you'll likely come off looking like a muttonhead to your prospective customer. You'll lose his respect, and you'll probably lose the business.
A version of this column originally appeared on Inc.com.