What’s too far and how do we handle it?

Leadership Questions

Okay, so, you are probably already tired of talking about it, but there are some really good questions and lessons rising up out of the Will Smith and Chris Rock incident. So, I’m just going to continue the conversation.

After the slap, Chris Rock and many comedians were incensed and responded with among other things “these are just jokes folks.” Many comedians have drawn the line in the sand on this one and insist on being able to say whatever they want to say for a laugh, essentially doing their job, and that they expect their safety to be assured.

I believe in workplace safety. None of us should be met with physical violence in response to doing our job. Firing people, giving feedback and critique, transferring people, writing up people, demoting people, these are all the difficult parts of the job of leadership. In too many cases, these functions have been met with anxiety, fear, harsh words and far too often, violence.

In the carrying out of our responsibilities of leadership, how we communicate is key. So where do jokes and their first cousin, sarcasm fit in? Humor can often take the tension out of a room and set people at ease. We are laughing together at something we can relate to. The intention is not to make people feel bad, but rather to shed light on humorous aspects of certain life situations that many of us share.

I spent some time studying comedy. I took a standup class, performed at beginner’s comedy nights at most of the comedy clubs in New York City and I even competed in a comedy contest along with 1000 other hopefuls, which led to me being chosen as one of seven finalists and appearing on national television in the very first Nick-at-Nite’s Funniest Mom in America Contest. I’m no Chris Rock but I have some insight on writing a good joke (that could take days or weeks) and the different responses to jokes that are repeatedly told at the expense of others.

I’m going to be straight up here. I do not believe in hiding behind “these are just jokes” when they come for someone and that person is right there listening. I believe that comedians have no right to expect absolute immunity when they are doing their job and their job is repeatedly targeting and hurting someone.

If there is an example being set by people who react with violence to any offense, there is also an example being set by targeting folks with jokes that hurt; and even though these are jokes, when someone tells you they are hurt, you can’t tell them that they are not. This is my truth, I know it may not be yours.

Workplace humor has included racist, sexist, homophobic, ableist, personal targeting jokes and much more. Social media includes the same themes with regularity. Studies have shown that students have reported that sarcasm used by teachers are being received as hurtful and a form of bullying. Responses like, “you’re too sensitive” or “you need to toughen up” are thrown out without any thought or care for the person/s on the receiving end of it.

How much is too much ya’ll?

Hurtful joking, which I consider to be a part of verbal violence, is a real thing and these days it is taking center stage along with physical violence. In fact, it is being blamed as a catalyst for physical violence. Whether you believe that words are not an excuse for violence or not, the truth is words are leading to it more and more. Sure, you can say, but everyone knows that is to be expected here, that’s the norm, like in the case of the Oscars. I get it, but you can say the same thing about social media, toxic work environments, social groups and families.

Are we really alright with anything goes and nothing crosses the line?

There are no easy answers, but plenty of opinions, including mine. It’s not like I haven’t laughed at something that someone else might find distasteful. Guilty, humor can be very subjective. I mean Chris Rock has made me feel bad about laughing at some of his humor that pushes the edges, yes, I am a fan and yes, I am grateful to him for his response to Will’s slap. But honestly, he and other comedians have also pushed me to think about how this plays out and affects our society.

I need us to think about this and talk about it and then let’s do something about it. Whether you believe in boundaries or not, we’ve got to look at ways to keep people safe emotionally and physically.

I’ve got some suggestions. But that’s for next time. Right now, I want you to just chew on this. Reach out to me, let me know where you weigh in on this. I promise not to slap you. See, was that too far? This stuff is deep ya’ll!

No easy answers, but I’m listening.

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