I think we’ve all been there…you’re part of a group, participating in a conversation, when someone says something that makes you cringe.
It could be a joke, a word or even an expression.
Expressions are particularly tricky because often we have heard them for so long that we don’t stop to think of what they really mean. “Rule of thumb”, for example, is about the thickness of the stick a man was allowed to use to beat his wife with. Some expressions are much more obvious and therefore clearly problematic, offensive and damaging. Sometimes it’s hard to believe anyone could say some of these without knowing this, but it is possible to speak out of ignorance or without forethought.
I was recently at a social gathering when someone used an expression that caught me completely off guard. Not only was it referring to a particularly painful part of cultural history, but I had never heard it before. It took me a moment to realize what I had heard. When I completed the instant replay in my mind I was so shocked it took me a further few moments to regain my internal composure. Then I tried to convince myself that the person must realize what they had just said – and the possible impact and message – and would stop and acknowledge it. But the conversation went on. By this time I had missed the moment, although I still could have said something. The trouble was, in that moment I didn’t know what to say. I know. It’s awful, but it’s the truth.
And here is the issue:
Often when someone says something offensive we take better care of them than of the people who are (or may be) impacted. We don’t want to embarrass them. We want to give them the benefit of the doubt. We don’t want to cause trouble, or (gasp) be a kill-joy.
Sometimes, too, we are so impacted by someone’s words we can’t speak.
The problem is that by remaining silent we miss an opportunity to share the impact of what was (sometimes innocently) said. And that means it will likely be said again. Context, timing, relationships and personality all come into play when determining if, when, and how to respond. But remaining silent means we all lose. Potentially all I would have had to say was “Did you really just say that?!” in order to shed some light and provide some food for thought. It doesn’t have to be a dissertation to be effective, but silence never creates awareness or change.
I recently came across a great video on the topic of racism and how to approach people who make inappropriate comments – I think it makes a good point.
copyright 2012 Annemarie Shrouder
Speaker, author and facilitator on issues of Diversity and Inclusion.