Twenty years ago, I was speaking to several hundred people who worked for the regional division of a national non-profit organization. At that time, I had not written any books so I sold cassette tapes of my presentations. For those of you who may not be familiar with this technology, cassette tapes were prehistoric methods of recording audio that predated CD’s but outlasted eight-track tapes. You may still be able to find a cassette tape at your local American history museum…or in my basement.
Cassette tapes were common products in the late 90’s and I would give a few of them away during my presentations because people love free stuff. It was also a great way to alert the audience that I had something to sell after the program. As an aside, many people think that selling products is quite glamorous. It’s not. In fact, I once had a book table at a conference where Melissa Gilbert was also speaking. You may remember her from Little House on the Prairie. Melissa’s book table was right next to mine and at one point, she had about three hundred people standing in line to purchase her book. I had one person in my line—until that individual realized she was not in Melissa Gilbert’s line and quickly abandoned me for Little Miss Prairie (yes, I’m still bitter). Not wanting to look too desperate, I scooted my chair closer to Melissa’s table in hopes that people would think I was just another member of her sales team.
Anyway, let’s get back to the event where I was giving away cassette tapes. Usually, I had three methods to select the lucky recipients of my products. The first would go to the person whose birthday was closest to the day of the event. The second would go to the person who had worked for the organization the longest. And the third would go to the newest employee. I figured this was a fun and fair way to distribute the gifts.
At this particular event, when I got to the last tape, I said, “Has anyone worked here for two months or less?”
No one raised their hand.
I said, “Has anyone worked here for four months or less?”
No one raised their hand.
I then said, “Has anyone worked here for six months or less”.
Three hands went up. So, I walked to the first person who had raised their hand and said, “How long have you worked here?”
The man said, “Two months.”
I said, “Well, I hope you don’t work in accounting.”
Everyone laughed louder.
Proud of my quick wit, I gave him a cassette tape and finished my presentation. It wasn’t until the next day that I found out that my impressive ad lib was not universally appreciated. But before I tell you why, here’s an experience with a similar outcome.
Several years ago, I was on my way to speak to leaders of a large healthcare system. After my plane landed, I made a quick stop in the airport restroom. As I approached the row of urinals, I noticed a man standing at one them, typing a text on his phone…with BOTH hands. I was impressed on many levels. I mean, the balance, the focus, and the dexterity it took to accomplish this feat was amazing.
But I couldn’t help wondering what business was so important that this man needed to send a text WHILE he was taking care of a totally different kind of business. Needless to say, it struck me as both funny and odd. The next day, I opened my presentation by sharing that story and the audience found it hilarious as well.
So, what’s the point of my telling you these two seemingly unrelated and inconsequential stories? Well, first, they both actually happened. Second, I thought they were quite amusing. And third, I received a scathing complaint in response to both.
Let’s go back to the man who wasn’t sure how long he had worked for his organization. In that instance, I was standing in front of several hundred people, doing a presentation on humor, and someone said something that elicited laughter from everyone in the room. As a humorist, I felt compelled to make a funny comment about his funny comment. So, I did.
Unfortunately, the man did not think either comment was funny. The next day, he called me to express his dissatisfaction with me and my presentation. It turns out there were some unusual circumstances related to his hiring and he was trying to avoid any unnecessary attention. Unbeknownst to me, I put him on the spot and he felt picked on. I apologized for my insensitivity and hopefully, he felt better about the whole situation.
With regard to the airport restroom experience, I always got huge laughs when I told that story. However, after one particular presentation, an anonymous participant complained to the conference coordinator because of the story’s “sexual nature”. While others found the story funny and enjoyed the ridiculousness of my observation, this individual was clearly upset by it. I apologized to the conference coordinator and as a precaution, removed the story from my repertoire…well…until now.
In both of these examples, I did not think my comments were particularly offensive. I understand the rationale behind the complaints but my intent was never to offend or upset anyone—I was simply sharing something funny. That being said, everyone’s perspective is different and we never know how any particular comment might be interpreted.
As someone who has both studied and used humor for many years, I find it challenging when people get caught up in distracting details that prevent them from seeing the bigger picture. If we are looking to be offended or are expecting things to go wrong, we will certainly discover adversity around every corner. If, on the other hand, we can rise above the details and see the humor in life’s many incongruities, then we have a chance to avoid more adversity and navigate through life more smoothly.
I guess you could say that on the balance sheet of life, it’s better to recognize the asset of having a laugh every day rather than being weighed down by the expense of only seeing the negative. Of course, that’s just how I add things up. But I don’t work in accounting.
I agree with you
“I find it challenging when people get caught up in distracting details that prevent them from seeing the bigger picture.”
Not only is this a challenge, but it is also a tactic. In both instances, you acknowledged the other party’s feelings and attempted to make amends.
Many times the offended PREFER to hold on to their hurt and while – you’re trying to be the bigger persona they are distracted by little details.
For example, have you ever told someone… “I’m sorry you are offended, that was not my intent” and they abruptly cut you off with “I’m not offended – I’m annoyed” “I’m not annoyed – I’m bothered” or “I’m not upset – I’m perturbed”. I went to school and learned about synonyms, was there an advanced follow-up class that I missed?
I say this to say – your attempt to make good was secondary and would be for a while.
I liken that to these examples you have brought up ….the bottom line is there is no possible way you could have known. In my opinion, the world could focus on the real issues plaguing it and not sweat the small stuff