I’m a pretty informal person. Probably because I was raised by working class Lutherans who were skeptical of rich people, I’ve always been wary of upper-class conventions like multiple forks at dinner or the proper order of introductions. (But I always hand-write thank you notes. That’s just good manners.)
My informality has served me pretty well, but last week, I stepped over a line.
Here’s what happened…
I was giving a presentation to the staff of Resource Interactive, a company that - by any measure - is incredible. My team and I have been coveting a working relationship with Resource for years - because we believe RI represents the kind of businesses we should be working with. Our values are similar. They are uber-creative. And it’s a company founded by a woman.
Anyway, I was nervous. I’d planned twenty minutes of material, but because I was last on the agenda, I ended up with five. In five minutes I had to:
- Position our firm as credible & trustworthy, so that Resource’s associates would be honest with us about their levels of engagement
- Share the results of their benchmark employee engagement survey, which were good, but not great. Resource is a culture that does a LOT right, and I had to say, “Not so fast, Trigger.”
- Be funny.
That last part is where I caught my pants in the ringer.
When I feel rushed or nervous, I default to getting laughs by being inappropriate. I don’t know why, but I feel if I shock people, it’s a shortcut to getting their attention. I turn into a white -woman version of Richard Pryor. Except that I’m not Richard Pryor…by a long shot.
During my remarks, I used the word “retard” to refer to a former boss.
(Pause for gasp.)
I know, I should know better. For crying out loud, my brother Ron has a learning disability. I’ve been defending and protecting him all of my life.
But in my screwed-up thinking, I reached for an offensive word in order to get the audience’s attention.
Of course, it backfired. No one listens to you after you offend them.
What did I learn from this?
- Say you’re sorry. Immediately. I’ve both videotaped and emailed an apology to Resource’s employees. And I encouraged them to contact me directly if they felt I needed an ass-chewing. One person took me up on it. (Thanks, D. I deserved it.)
- Get clear about the boundaries you’re not willing to cross. Ever. Here’s a list I made for myself, post-retard: religion, ability, sexual orientation, politics (unless Saturday Night Live has already done a great spoof on it), race, ethnicity, and gender.
- When in doubt, ask for clarification. When I started writing for Madison Magazine , I asked Brennan if I could use the words “shit,” “bitch,” or “asshole.” Brennan’s advice: “No. Use crap instead of shit.” Noted.
In their book Content Rules, authors Ann Handley and C.C. Chapman advise:
Be appropriate for your audience. Does “be appropriate” sound like something your prudish aunt might hiss at you through pursed lips? Well, at the risk of sounding preachy, it’s important to adopt an appropriate tone for your business purpose and for your audience. We said to have fun; we didn’t say be raucous.
Finally, you have to learn from your mistakes, and move on. That’s what working class people do.