In Encouragement Of Shutting Up

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Watching what you say at work isn’t about political correctness gone mad – it’s about showing sound judgment. Enough already clowns – filter!

I’ll be the first to admit that I, at times, can have a sharp tongue.

I’ll be the first to admit my mouth has, at times, gotten me into a bit of trouble.

One of the earliest family anecdotes involving me recounts the time, at around eighteen months old, I told the next door neighbour I thought he was silly (with an icily precise tone and some dignity, in spite of a full nappy hanging between my legs, to the general approval of those present), and I did, indeed, spend an awful lot of my time at school stood outside of classrooms (excluded for something I’d said, rather than done).

Maybe it comes from being the baby of the family. It’s a long time before you can compete physically with your siblings, but, once you’ve mastered language, you have a whole armoury of weapons at your disposal.

I collected putdowns in the same way other kids collected smelly erasers.

Thanks to the miracle of VHS, at ten years old, I could re-watch Blackadder, Victoria Wood, The Golden Girls, Dame Edna, French and Saunders, Spitting Image et al (the mid-eighties really was a golden age of comedy, and all of the aforementioned contain many a timeless sting) and get all their lines down, word perfect and perfectly lined up in my mind like the records in a jukebox, ready for the right moment to be deployed.

It’s a terrible affliction. You find yourself thinking perfectly nice thoughts, and then someone unwittingly gives you the lead in and it’s there, that killer line, a whip to lash back, because it’s funny, because it’s a perfect comeback, and, before you know it, it’s rolled down from your brain and into your mouth, across your tongue and out, into the world, never to be retrieved.

“We’re not having a sweet.”

Very wise with those hips.”*

If you’re lucky, your family and friends share the same sense of humour – they know you don’t really mean it when you say such things and great times can be had by all.

If you’re really lucky, the people you work with also share the same sense of humour, although it is here that we find ourselves on much thinner ice.

At work, assuming people know you don’t really mean it and are just trying to be funny is a risky business.

Comedy is, essentially, an intimate business. It’s why we love our comedians so much and mourn their loss so deeply. They show us the funny little things, in life, in others, in ourselves, in words and actions, that we all too easily miss, or forget to see, in the rush of day-to-day existence, survival.

Creating intimacy in relations at work is still a slow process, though, through the accelerants of alcohol and social media, we think we can fast-track it. We foolishly believe that we really know people – their sensibilities, sensitivities, their deeply-held beliefs – when, in fact, we only know what’s presented to us and, even then, only what we choose to see, and interpret, of that.

You’re face-down like Jane Torvill on wafer-thin ice* if you think everyone at work will get the joke, or that everyone will appreciate it.

That’s why it’s so incredible to me, in this amplified, sensitive, outraged world we live in (and I’m not bleating here, there are plenty of reasons, on a daily basis, to be colossally outraged by the things that people say), that people are so careless, so cavalier, so freaking stupid, with their words, especially when in work mode (whether that’s as a politician, head of an ad agency or coach of a sports team).

Cheap gags, cheap shots, sketchy ‘facts’ and sweeping generalisations are repeated every day by ‘professionals’ who should know better.

When things are black and white, they make them grey. When things are many shades of grey, they insist they’re black or white. And when they get caught for being truly offensive, they claim they didn’t really mean it, were just trying to be funny, shouldn’t be taken so seriously, ‘miss-spoke’, or, in the worst case scenario, no longer mean what they (clearly) said.

It’s staggering what people ‘at the top of their game’ allow to slide out of their mouths (or onto their Twitter feeds) with some kind of intent to be funny (I’m not saying the likes of Boris are always trying to be funny in their deliberate offensiveness, but the ‘comedic’ comments in the mix can be, wrongly, seen to take the edge off the more outrageously offensive ones – how else can you explain why Boris hasn’t been kicked to the curb?).

I know the impulse – not Boris’s, it really would be razor blades in the bath* if I thought I shared any of Boris’s impulses – but I know the thrill in saying the outrageous thing.

I also know YOU’VE GOT TO FILTER.

Maturity is, surely, about self-mastery, self-awareness and the awareness of others’ sensitivities. Telling your truth, telling it like it is, as you see it, and being offensive, are two very different things.

We want mature leaders who know the difference, don’t we?

At work, I’ve never held back on saying what I think, but I have tried to hold back, a lot, in terms of how I’ve said it (I’m not saying I’ve always been successful).

I remember someone I once managed saying to me “You don’t laugh around much, you don’t really do banter,” which was, on a personal level, a rather sad to thing to hear, but, as I explained, on a professional level (I’m still a believer in the concept of trying to be professional), as I was a remote manager at the time, with a relatively new team, and as my default sense of humour is on the slightly acidic side, I didn’t feel I had the necessary day-to-day intimacy with the team to warrant being like that. I didn’t want to assume they’d get it (though I did heed the message to try to lighten up a little).

But, overall, I think (and this will sound terribly old-fashioned, I’m sure, to many) having to filter, having to zip it, is part of the responsibly, and sacrifice, that comes with being a manager, being a leader, being in a position of power or authority.

Great leaders choose their words wisely. 

Whether we actually agree with what’s fundamentally being said or understand it’s deliberate flippancy or irony isn’t really the point. Whether we’re in on the joke isn’t really the point either. We should be deeply worried about anyone in a position of authority who deliberately puts their foot in their mouth knowing how offensive their actions, their words, might be, or is fully-aware of how they might be interpreted or contorted.

It’s not big. It’s certainly not clever. It’s not funny. It’s just terrible judgment (and should that always be forgiven?).

So does that mean I’m advocating we all work in a humourless world, too scared of saying anything for fear of saying the wrong thing?

Not at all. I’m saying, you’ve got to cultivate three-dimensional, trusted, mutually-understanding, respectful and beneficial relationships at work, and a culture that promotes them, for the joke to really work – and it only really works if everyone is laughing.

If you think something’s really funny, but possibly offensive to someone, save it for a more intimate setting. Save it for down the pub. Filter.

And, if you’re working in public office or a high profile role (or, indeed, have an ambition to) it might be best to just leave it to the professionals, period. So many of you act like clowns anyway, we don’t need any more gags, quips, throwaway remarks or carelessly tweeted comments (with smiley-faced emojiis or not) or sneering pictures of the outside of people’s houses from you (you really do have to wonder what possesses them, don’t you?).

Sure, it gets you attention, but for all the wrong reasons.

Grow up.

*In memory of one my all time comedy heroes, Victoria Wood, who died this month at the age of 62.

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