In the last issue of “Tips For Today’s Managers,” I described an incident where I offended an attendee at one of my presentations by failing to communicate my interest in him while I signed a copy of my book that he had just purchased. (If you missed reading that article, and would like to do so, you can find it on my website. Just click on “Disconfirmation: How To Lose Customers, Tick Off Your Employees, and Alienate Your Family.”)
After the issue was published, I subsequently received an e-mail from a speaker colleague of mine who said:
“Larry, I enjoyed your article…but the following sentence turned me off: ‘My wife accuses me of being a SNAG (Sensitive New Age Guy.) I hope I’m not that smarmy, but I do consider it good manners to make every person I come in contact with feel important.’ Every person, I guess except for smarmy SNAGs. I don’t consider Sensitive New Age Guys as smarmy and was surprised to think you would.”
She went on to say that as speakers, we need to be aware of our audiences’ sensitivities and be careful about the language we use.
My response to my colleague’s feedback was mixed.
On one hand, she’s right. The words you use impact others in ways you can’t always predict, so you should be careful what you say. And the price you pay for offending others with your words can be high. For example, early in my career as a speaker, I would sometimes lead off my presentations with a little joke about sexual fantasies. It always got a good laugh until I told it to an audience with a large number of religious folks. On the post-program evaluations, they ripped me good – and rightly so. I’ve never used off-color material since.
On the other hand, is there not a limit to political correctness? Must we fret about every little thing we say for fear we will offend someone? All I was doing in my article was poking a little fun at the people who are not of my thinking when it comes to this New Age stuff. And it was probably harmless enough. So, I am tempted to say to them, “Hey! Lighten up and get over it, already.”
But will they? Probably not. They will be offended, whether or not I think they should be.
So I have to ask myself, “Am I willing to live with their offence? Am I willing to give up that part of my audience for the sake of an off-the-cuff bit of humor?” I have no idea how many people subscribe to New Age thinking, but if it’s 10% of my readership and 10% of the attendees at my seminars, that’s a lot of people I’ve just offended for the sake of capturing a quick laugh.
Now, you may be asking, “Wait a minute Larry. Aren’t you the guy who co-authored Absolute Honesty? The guy who preaches straight talk and candid conversations? Why are you so concerned about offending people by speaking the truth?”
Well, I do believe in telling the truth when the truth needs to be told. But why offend an entire group of people by making a sweeping generalization about them? A very wise uncle of mine once told me that humor gained at the expense of others, regardless of how benign, will come back to bite you. At the very least, you will turn them off. And, at worst, you run the risk of turning them into enemies. High prices to pay, indeed.
And maybe it’s not so bad to be concerned with “political correctness.”
As a baby boomer, I remember when ethnic jokes were a part of day-to-day conversations around the water cooler; when it was OK for a male employee to make off-color remarks to a female colleague; when the “N” word was used regularly by some whites in the workplace as though it was not offensive; when the company for whom my step-father worked (one of the largest consumer product companies in the world) made it a practice of NOT hiring Jews. Thirty years later, all of that has changed, thank goodness. Branding certain words and phrases as “politically incorrect” has surely helped bring about those changes.
So somewhat grudgingly, I have to thank my colleague for the honest feedback she gave me. Hopefully it will help me in the future to avoid disrespecting, and thus offending people who have a different view of the world than I.
Now you may be saying, “Hey Larry, you’re a speaker. You have audiences you must worry about, so that makes sense. I’m just a supervisor in my shop. I don’t have any audiences with which to concern myself, so why should I bother?”
Yeah, right – you have only your entire crew. As a speaker, I only present to an audience two or three times a week. As a supervisor, you’re on stage every day. And the off-handed blonde joke or ethnic barb might make for a good laugh in the short term, but since your job depends on the people who work for you in the long term, you may have just lost the enthusiasm of one or two of them. That is a really high price to pay.