We need to be more careful than ever in what we say.

Posted Sep 07, 2016

Source: DimitriSvetsikas, PIxabay, Public Domain

We can relax around some people even if they're veritable strangers, but not with others. They're mines ready to explode if you don't say what they want to hear.

I'll change irrelevant details to protect anonymity.

Jody was at a wedding and talking with her nephew who was 17 at the time. She rarely got to see him because they live 1,000 miles apart. As part of her attempt to build a bond between them and reduce any intimidation because she was a successful physician, she told him that, as a teenager, she shoplifted. It worked.They had a great conversation. But he told his father about it who proceeded to trumpet it to the entire family, "Jody is a shoplifter!" (It has been 25 years since she shoplifted!)

Don had been consulting for a few days at Exxon. Each day, an admin greeted him and asked if he wanted a cup of coffee. One day, a different admin greeted him and didn't ask. Don asked if she wouldn't mind making him a cup of coffee. She said, "Making coffee is not in my job description." She proceeded to write a complaint to HR after which Don was not rehired.

Maia was to appear on a TV show and told to park in the building's lot because there was construction throughout in the immediate area and thus no street parking. When she pulled in, the attendant said, "I'm sorry, you can't leave your cat in the car. It's against building policy." Maia said, "Okay, I'll take him in with me. He's sweet." The attendant said, "Sorry. You can't do that either." She explained that she was to be on a major TV show that was to start in 12 minutes. The attendant still said no. Frustrated, she said, in a raised voice, "The cat isn't going to do any harm. Can't he stay in my car or come with me? Rules can be flexible!" The parking attendant again refused. Maia then asked him to call his supervisor. He crept to the phone, making her more frustrated--she wanted to be responsible to be on the air on-time. Three minutes later, the supervisor came and reiterated the policy. Maia yelled, "Don't you have any judgment at all?!" That got her officially banned from the building for life! (Maia had appeared at this TV station many times previously but not since then. )

In hosting my radio program, I once forgot to say "he or she" or better, "she or he," (unless referring to a bad character in which saying only "he" is fine.) I came home to find an email from an angry listener, with a copy to the station manager, seething, "Saying only 'he' is sexist, denying women's existence, let alone agency."  "Sexist" is, next to "racist," today's worst epithet.

The latter may have been anomalous--After all, my radio program is on a "progressive" NPR station in San Francisco. But the need to be ever more careful is national. Its most obvious manifestation is the increase in perceived  "microaggressions," which have expanded to include even "Where are you from?" and "I'm assigning "Huckleberry Finn." The Offended Class demands "trigger" warningsEastland women's Eastland Eastland Falmouth Falmouth Falmouth women's women's Eastland Falmouth before a professor says or assigns anything that might offend their sensibilities. They demand "safe spaces. from "intersectional" racism, sexism, homophobia, etc. A number of universities, including Berkeley and Maryland have capitulated. The University of Chicago's recent banning of them is for now but a unicorn.

Lest you think all this was last year's faded fad, today's Eastland Falmouth Eastland women's Eastland women's Eastland Falmouth women's Falmouth Falmouth New York Times reports on the now-occurring 2016-17 college orientations. Here is how the article begins:

A freshman tentatively raises her hand and takes the microphone. “I’m really scared to ask this,” she begins. “When I, as a white female, listen to music that uses the N word, and I’m in the car, or, especially when I’m with all white friends, is it O.K. to sing along?”

The answer, from Sheree Marlowe, the new chief diversity officer at Clark University, is an unequivocal “no.”

The exchange was included in Ms. Marlowe’s presentation to recently arriving first-year students focusing on subtle “microaggressions,” part of a new campus vocabulary that also includes “safe spaces” and “trigger warnings.”

Could hypersensitivity make it tougher to break through "glass ceilings?" After all, it's difficult to argue that you have the capacity to deal with the stresses of being a CEO when perceived microaggressions so upset you. Indeed, quietly, many successful people of both sexes and different races refer to the easily offended as "snowflakes." 

More broadly, it's hard to imagine that hypersensitivity will, professionally or personally, serve those offended, let alone people trying to address society's racial and gender tensions. Here is an excellent PsychologyToday.com interview of Christina Hoff Sommers by Clay Routledge that explores the issue in greater detail.  And here is an equally good, thorough review of these issues by Scientific American columnist, Michael Shermer.

At conferences and parties I've attended in recent years, I've noticed that, in mixed company, people are more polite but interaction tends to be more superficial. People being more on-their-guard likely translates to fewer people willing to go to bat for a person of a different race or gender, for example, in hiring and promotion. In contrast, I've also noted an increase in people saying, "sisters help sisters." I have not heard anyone say "brothers help brothers."

Perhaps America's hypersensitivity is a temporary overreaction to previous wrongs and will self-correct. I don't know. I do know that, even with family, you have to be careful.

The Best of Marty Nemko, 2nd edition is now available. If you might like Marty as your career and personal coach, email him at mnemko@comcast.net..