Let’s talk about ethnicity, gender, faith.
Imagine you’re travelling overseas. You’re in a hidden valley in a remote corner of an inhospitable but strangely fascinating country. After days of struggling to communicate with people in funny costumes with weird languages, you hear someone speaking your own language. Not only your native tongue, but in an accent that marks the speaker as a compatriot.
You’ve never met this person, but you feel an instant bond (unless the person is so obnoxious that you don’t want him or her to know you’re from the same country). You feel relieved to be able to strike up a conversation. You feel you can compare a recent experience with one back home and know your new best friend will understand the reference.
You presume this stranger has similar interests and values to you. You presume that this person is a soul mate and you base this purely on an accent and similar skin tones.
Not so fast.
Are you sure you are both from the same country? Maybe she’s Canadian and not American. Maybe he’s Austrian and not German. Taiwanese and not Chinese. Maybe you have different beliefs. Jewish, not Baptist. Hindu, not Islamic. Conservative, not socialist. Multiculturalist, not white supremist. Until you get talking and start delving, you won’t know.
Okay, some questions for you.
Were all of your clients born locally? Are they of the same ethnic origins as you? Were your clients’ parents born locally? Don’t know? We’ll come back to this in a moment.
Let’s talk about jokes.
A blonde walks into a bar …
Ever told a joke that fell flat on its face? Was it a blonde joke? Was there a blonde in your audience? And she didn’t laugh? Don’t you hate that?
Was it a Kiwi-bashing joke? And you told it to a bunch of Kiwis? And they didn’t find it funny? You’d think they’d learn to laugh at themselves, wouldn’t you? Maybe you even told them to lighten up – shortly before one of them threatened to punch your lights out.
Did you tell a holocaust joke to a German or a Jew? Or both? And neither killed themselves laughing?
Did you tell your famous Amos and Rastus joke to a bunch of humourless blokes with dark skin?
Did your hilarious Irish Catholic joke fail to get its usual side splitting response when you told it last week to that Patrick O’Hare or O’Toole or whatever that guy with the singsong accent was called?
Do you feel that way too many people have taken way too much exception to way too many of your attempts to be entertaining? Do you feel that you’ve been singled out for special attention? Do you feel that you have come across more than your fair share of these sensitive types? Why? What is it with these people, anyway? Whilst you’re out to have a great time, they seem to be out to throw a wet blanket on the occasion.
If you notice such things, you might have noticed that however benign a subject might seem, there’ll always be some idiot who’ll take exception to it.
The reality is that there’s a joke to offend everyone on planet Earth. Surely it’s not your job to quiz your audience for individual sensitivities before you tell the one about [insert your subject of choice here].
If it were your job to probe for your audience’s hidden emotional soft spots, your government would have legislated it by now. You’d be required to announce before each joke something like:
The following joke contains material of a sexist and racist nature. It is recommended for non-blonde, non-Australian audiences only. If you are blonde and Australian or related, by birth or by marriage, to a blonde Australian, then you should cover your ears. If you do not cover your ears and you hear and are offended by the material contained in this joke, the teller of the joke apologises but accepts no legal responsibility. Whilst this joke meets humour standards HS654/1 and HS623 in a controlled joke-telling environment with a representative sample of non-blonde, non-Australian audiences, individual results may vary.
There’s a whole minefield waiting out there. If you let it get the better of you, you’ll stay frozen in one spot. You’ll feel unable to move for fear of accidentally bruising someone’s fragile ego. You’ll worry that you might inadvertently cross the arbitrary border of good taste. You’ll live in fear of offending your audience’s ancestors, their countrymen, their workmates, their families or their pets.
The sad truth for all of you play-it-as-it-lies, shoot-from-the-hip, talk-first-think-second kind of guys is that it’s really easy to put your foot in it without knowing it. How easy?
In some cultures, slurping your food is regarded as an unsavoury (yep, a pun) sign of poor breeding. In others, it indicates your enjoyment of your meal. In some places, putting your feet up might indicate that you’re totally at ease. In others, showing the soles of your feet or shoes to another is a big no-no. In some countries, leaving food on your plate suggests you didn’t enjoy the meal. In others, it signals to the host that you have eaten sufficient.
See what I mean? It would take a lifetime to learn all of these. Years and years of extracurricular anthropology or sociology study. Of course, that’s not for you.
You have a life to get on with, a business to run. Surely you shouldn’t be expected to worry about who’s going to be offended by anything you do or say. Surely not.