Lester Bangs: So, you’re the one who’s been sending me those articles from your school newspaper.
William Miller: I’ve been doing some stuff for a local underground paper, too.
Lester Bangs: What, are you like the star of your school?
William Miller: They hate me.
Lester Bangs: You’ll meet them all again on their long journey to the middle.
Another month, another situation. While I’m not as intellectually or academically challenged as I used to be, I now seem to encounter new, perplexing social situations all the time. This is natural. By and large, I grew up in the protective embrace of a small family and a small town. Because my ambitions and capabilities were small relative to the world, I didn’t have to face much of it. But now that I’ve left the nest and am spreading my wings, different and challenging interactions with other folks are to be expected.
Situation 1: I was jokingly asked to provide party game suggestions for our annual holiday party. Going along with the request, also half-jokingly, I came up with the idea for a game of Newlyweds pairing different people at the firm – in particular, the senior level folk with their more junior admin counterparts. I thought it would be a) entertaining given the generation gap (imagine a 60 y/o partner guessing how many texts a 25 y/o sends or how many shoes he/she has) and b) a way for the broader firm to get to know the partners.
I sent around an email to several of the junior admins, most of whom I know reasonably well, suggesting that we ought to make it happen… not at this holiday party but the next. Roughly an hour or two later, a colleague/ friend relayed to me that one or a handful of the recipients found the idea to be somewhat offensive/sexist.
Analysis 1: My initial emotional reaction was to feel both misunderstood and angry. I felt misunderstood because I didn’t see how Newlyweds, as a game played on television, could be construed as sexist any more than Wheel of Fortune. Yes – many of our admins were females and many of the partners were male, but we have male admins as well. Since I was convinced that my idea was not sexist, I felt that the reaction was an extension of America’s increasingly PC culture and a further symptom of my firm’s distaste for innovation and new things. This was upsetting.
Looking back, clearly I’d made some serious mistakes. First, I’d read the room incorrectly. Said differently, I should’ve gauged advance enthusiasm for this. Sometimes you can and should stir the pot just to stir the pot (i.e., throw an idea out there just to shake people up), but if you really want something to succeed you should make sure that people support it individually before the time you suggest it. I took a shortcut that I shouldn’t have.
Second, I made tactical errors related to the medium of email and how I phrased my message – it’s always a risk sending out a blast email given that it can be forwarded, misconstrued and you’re not there in person to defend or explain yourself. Also: I didn’t know some of the folks on the email thread. I assumed knowledge on the part of the reader – that people had played Newlyweds and knew how innocuous of a game it was (for some, the title itself might be a turnoff). And I didn’t think enough about some of the sample questions I posed such as the shoes question.
When confronted with a new situation, uninformed, risk averse people will commonly respond with negative emotions first. Very rarely will they give you the benefit of the doubt.
Resolution 1: I went straight into damage control mode following the feedback. I felt that it was extremely serious since prior experience had taught me that an image is extremely difficult to shake once it takes hold (Spaceman in college or slacking in high school), particularly when that image circulates amongst the more social or popular members of a crowd. I could not allow a sexist image to take hold at work.
Although I was angry and felt it was unjust, I clearly needed to apologize. I needed to open up a dialogue with the opposing view so that whispers about this would not fester, away from my notice.
In order to apologize, I could send out a followup email. Or I could find the person I’d offended and apologize to them personally. Sending a followup blast email did not seem like a great choice – I could potentially muddy the waters/make things worse in a second email and/or confuse those who weren’t offended. However, I also didn’t want to give off the impression of a witch hunt to uncover the identity of the offended person.
Instead, I decided to go the extra mile and apologize to each person on the thread individually and without regard to offense. I was careful to portray my reasoning, explain the background and the fact that I had recently played Newlyweds while paired with a male friend (hence sexism was the furthest thing from my mind). I was further careful to listen to everything that the recipients had to say, since not doing so would have been viewed as further confirmation of my offense. And before even doing so, I made sure to over-resource by consulting others on what to say and how to approach the situation.
Besides hopefully settling things with the offended party, by apologizing to everyone, I also cemented my position by gaining the sympathy of the non-offended folks on the thread. From past experience, I think that being vulnerable is a great way to build your relationship with others. Furthermore, I gave everyone to whom I apologized an unprecedented feeling of power by humbling myself – a potentially gratifying and intoxicating rush. If I couldn’t have relieved the offended party, having folks on your side is always helpful.
Situation 2: A ton of folks bailed last second on analyst dinner which I arranged.
Analysis 2: Actually still not sure why. A referendum on me? A disregard for each other? Simply busy?
I probably could have done a better job making sure there was ground support and not just the impersonal Doodle.
I guess there’s a reason no analyst dinner has taken place for over a year. Some who apologized seemed to get it but perplexed by those who neither
Should I provide feedback? Respond negatively or assume the best? Should there be consequences? How to deal? Unsure.