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Causing Offense In Training, Real Life

Charlie Hebdo, Offending People, and Learning From A Training Issue

By Robert Bacal

The day after I completed a train the trainers program on behalf of my employer, a government agency, I was called in to the boss' office.

Boss: Robert, we got a complaint about your behavior in the course, and while I don't believe it's serious at all, because the person complaining wasn't actually eligible for attendance, I need to look into it, OK?

Me: OK, fine.

Boss: So, did you happen to mention the word bra, in the context of the difficulty men face trying to unfasten it?

Me: Well, yes I did. I thought it was a funny and appropriate metaphor that fit for our discussion on skills training.  It got a laugh. Was there some kind of problem?

Boss: Yes, the complaint was that that remark was sexist, and one participant actually called me, and came, in person to talk to me. In fact, I gave her a refund, and apologized.

Me: You're kidding me. I know who that person was. She was the one who came to the course, but wasn't a government employee, so she was only there by mistake. We decided after the first day that she might as well stay, as a courtesy.

Isn't this bowing to pressure that really has to do with her sensitivity? You know she is wanting to teach hands-on healing right? And the use of crystals to cure serious diseases like cancer? Isn't this taking things way to far, to acknowledge that she was right, apologize -- Political correctness run amok?

Boss: Yes, probably. First, I am not criticizing you here. The remark seems to me to completely benign, and I know you, and you wouldn't make sexist remarks in class. In fact you have always stood up to challenge sexism and racism.

Me: So why are we having this conversation?

Boss: I want you to apologize to this person.

Me: Why, if I did nothing wrong, and she is the one that is clearly the problem here by being over-sensitive?

Boss: Let me answer your question with a question.

Was there any other wording or metaphor you could have used that would have served equally well in making your point about skill acquisition and the importance of practice?

Me: Well, sure. I could have talked about any skill requiring dexterity - typing, or tying a necktie or....well probably hundreds of things.

Boss: So why did you choose to talk about lady's lingerie?

Me: I was, I guess, trying to be funny. It just popped into my head as a good example. I wasn't trying to offend, and if I had known it would offend someone, I wouldn't have used it.

Boss: Good. I think we are on the same wavelength here. Let's be clear. Your job is to help people learn, and when you say things that interfere, by causing offense unnecessarily, you aren't doing that job, agreed?

Me: Yes. That makes sense to me.

Looking back, I see there is no merit in offending people, even when someone takes offense and seems to be unreasonable. It's not about political correctness. It's realizing there is no merit in being "funny", or being offensive for their own sake.

Boss: Good. That IS my point. If there is no other way to get to a goal, and the goal is important, and you know that that path is going to offend people, I have little objection to that path. As they say, sometimes you have to break eggs to make an omelette.

BUT, when there are other non-offensive ways to make a point, then you shouldn't offend people if you KNOW that your action will offend.

So, are you good with that?

Me: Yup. There's always a chance of offending accidentally, but yes, in future, I'll use equally effective examples that won't offend.

Boss: Great. Now here's the phone number of the "complainant". Call here today. And be nice.

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