I’ve stayed in more hotels than a popular hooker; and I’ve heard more confessions than an elderly priest. As a diversity trainer, I used to travel around the country to various companies and conduct seminars on issues surrounding diversity and inclusion. As a result, I frequently found myself in budget hotels in the middle of nowhere at night, eating “salads” consisting of only iceberg lettuce and shredded carrots, and listening to issues involving racism, sexism, ageism, gender identity, sexual orientation issues and more during the day.
The one thing I’ve learned about myself is that people seemingly feel comfortable telling me things that they are ashamed of or asking me questions that they would never ask anyone else. When I was on a company’s site, I would become the nameless, raceless, genderless bartender, people felt comfortable showing their darkest parts.
Consequently, I’ve heard raw bigotry, extreme pain, and genuine confusion; yet only one sentiment has ever upset me: arrogant dismissal.
That isn’t racist. That’s not offensive. It was just a joke. She is too sensitive. There is nothing more offensive to me – and more importantly, destructive to the process of creating bonds of mutual understanding, healing and community progress – than when someone dismisses someone else’s experience and feelings and declares themselves the ultimate and determinative judge of their own behavior.
I have spent the same amount of time consoling those who are hurt, angry, offended, or indignant that they have been accused of being offensive or hurtful in the workplace as I have consoling those that they have offended. Being accused of being biased, prejudice, xenophobic or homophobic goes against the moral fiber of who most of us have been raised to think America represents. We have been told since we were in elementary school that America is the melting pot, the home of the free, one nation under God. We watch heartwarming videos of kids of different races playing together and of people of different religions praying together during a tragedy.
On the other hand, racists are portrayed as ignorant, dirty, disgusting characters, who usually wear White robes and burn crosses at night; sexists are very wealthy, arrogant men, who openly harass the office staff; and homophobes as bible-thumping folks who think they can “pray” the LGBTQ out of people. Understandably, no one wants to associate themselves with those people, so when someone accuses us of being any of those things; most people don’t deny what they said or did but rather will focus on proving that their words or actions were not wrong, and justifying their behavior and character.
The conversations often go something like this:
HR Director: Sarah, Jack feels insulted because you frequently call him “gramps”, have asked him repeatedly when he’s going to retire, and have cut him off at meetings by saying, “Jack doesn’t understand this generation” when he was giving his input about new ideas.
Sarah: That’s ridiculous! Is he saying that I don’t like old people?
HR Director: I don’t think he is saying you don’t like old people. He just said that he is offended by your remarks and I want you two to feel comfortable working here and working together.
Sarah: I am comfortable working with Jack! I love old people! My grandmother is one of my best friends! Seriously, I call her almost every other day! My dog walker is a retired school teacher. I trust her with my two dogs! I can’t believe that Jack would accuse me of being ageist! Perhaps Jack is just too sensitive because he’s the oldest guy around here. Maybe he’s insecure.
HR Director: Let’s bring the conversation back to exactly what things you said that offended Jack. For instance, have you said that “he wouldn’t understand certain things because he doesn’t know this generation?”
Sarah: Yes, but I didn’t mean any harm by saying that. Geez, it’s true. Jack is 69. He doesn’t know about how tweens will respond to our Twitter campaign. What I said is not offensive!
HR Director: Jack found it offensive.
Sarah: I am so hurt. I really thought Jack liked me. I can’t believe he is attacking me this way.
Sarah is so focused on not being considered a bad person or being labeled ageist that she can’t hear or accept that she may have said something that was offensive to someone else. She isn’t open to even considering how her words or actions were received by Jack. This common reaction is a pathogen to understanding and growth and causes ill-will, gossip, work issues to spread like an aggressive disease.
None of us gets to decide if we have offended someone. None of us can decide what is offensive to another person. Typically what is offensive is rooted in one’s gender, race, religion, culture, life experiences. And since none of us can be knowledgeable about all of these things for each person, if someone claims that you offended them; it’s best to learn how and why, so you won’t do it again. Shouldn’t that be each person’s goal—not to be right—be to do right and strive not to hurt others?