Tuesday, December 18, 2012

"That's Offensive."

Not long into a project my colleague and I were discussing a design that she had made. The colleague somewhat junior.

"I really don't like it," colleague said, referring to an element that someone had insisted on.

"Yeah, that's really bad," I replied. "In fact it makes me want to throw up."

"That's offensive!"

Oh my. I seemed like I had really said something wrong. But wasn't I just agreeing?

When I was little we used to go from New Jersey to Borough Park (an ultra-Orthodox Jewish neighborhood in Brooklyn) and my dad used to make my mom, me and my sister wear skirts.

"Why can't I wear pants?" I used to ask. "It's so hypocritical the way you act."

My mother tried to explain.

"Women don't wear pants in that neighborhood," she said. "It's offensive."

The other day, at work, someone was lost near my cube. "Is anybody here?"

"I'm here," I said, rather loudly I'm afraid. It was holiday party day.

After some chitchat it was clear she was not going to find who she was looking for.

"Happy Hanukkah," she said, looking at my cube. The lonely blue and white ribbons amid what seemed like endless Christmas decorations.

"Happy Hanukkah," I replied. We got to talking.

"Can I ask you a question?" the woman asked me.


"I don't mean to offend you. But why do Orthodox Jews like junk food so much?"

I started laughing. What?

"I used to have a boss who left early on Fridays, for Sabbath. He always had all this junk food in his drawer."

Religion has nothing to do with junk food. But I had a clue what she was talking about. When I was little we used to visit my ultra-Orthodox family in upstate New York. And they always had a "candy drawer."

Then I had what Oprah calls an "a-ha" moment. "Did your boss used to have Oreos?"

"Uh-huh. Tons of them. Chocolate and vanilla."

So I explained that Orthodox Jews love Oreos because they used to be made with lard, and now they have a hechscher (kosher certification), and we simply cannot get enough.

Someone explained to me that Islam is highly averse to public charitable drives, and so the entire CFC (Combined Federal Campaign), with all its pressure to contribute and the public markers of "targets achieved," is offensive from that perspective.

Another person said that as a relatively low-paid worker with children to support it is not fair to expect the same level of contribution as an executive. In fact, it is sort of offensive.

I understand both of these sentiments!

My favorite blogger in this entire world - Penelope Trunk, the best writer I have ever read bar none - became infamous when she tweeted her miscarriage. Wow did the world go on fire at that. She gives career advice, much of it frankly offensive from a modern feminist point of view.

And some of it seems right.

People sometimes say that federal workers are lazy. Some are, that's true. (Like anywhere else.) But if you admit it - and you call for unproductive people to be fired - get ready.

Because in some quarters, "that's offensive" to say.

No matter how good your intentions, you will always say or do or write things that offend others. You may mean well, but others take it wrong; you may have genuinely held beliefs that are out of step with the crowd.

After the Connecticut shooting I wrote a lot about hysteria and gun control. I warned that we should not trample on the Second Amendment. In fact, I said, we should follow the example of Israel and station armed guards at every school. (Israel has stricter gun control on the individual.)

My friends were livid. A Facebook argument raged.

"What? How can you say that? So offensive!"

This is part of the problem with plain writing in the government. We often write muddled even though we can write plain. Because we don't want to risk offending anybody.

I know I'm sometimes undiplomatic. I'll take that hit.

But the worst kind of offensive, if you want to ask me, is communicating in a way that obfuscates the truth.

This kind of offensive is not the same as tact. As political correctness, which has gotten a bad rap. That is about understanding the limits of public discourse. It's a line you should be sensitive to, and you sometimes won't recognize when it's been crossed.

I think political correctness is frequently good.

But at the end of the day if you want to communicate meaningfully, you will offend.

Honesty is not always accuracy. My aunt is forever offending me with her straight but cutting talk.

But if you have to choose between honest and tactful, choose honesty first. If you are always censoring yourself you will never be able to utter a word.

And then, if someone tells you - hey, that's a little too much - you are free to dial it back. (Or not.)

That's free speech in a free marketplace of ideas, and by and large, it works.

Thank you to the people who take their time to read my blog, and to share their honest feedback.