The Rev. Neil O’Farrell offers advice on how to avoid putting a foot in one’s mouth… and how to learn from those times when it will happen.
We all speak millions and millions of words. Some of us, ministers like me, get paid for talking. It’s hopeful that we can do it with good sense. A blooper here and there, but pretty much, words that sound right and to good effect.
Even those of us who get paid to talk can get it wrong, and sometimes terribly wrong. The memory of those occasions can cause cringes that last maybe for a lifetime.
A theologian mentor of mine taught me that we’re not only responsible for what we say, but also how we’re heard. I know many of us think that if someone misunderstands us, that it’s their problem, or they should know that our good intentions preclude us from saying something too terrible. I know from experience that these propositions are both wrong. Letting ourselves off the hook this easily takes the sting out of what could be an important teachable moment for us.
Several years ago, I spoke at a conference, and it wasn’t until about a week later that I realized that the core of what I said was taken as an offense. I’m not going into detail about the conference because my intellectual pratfall could have happened at almost any conference dealing with hard issues. What I did was comparable to addressing an audience of vegans with ruminations of how much I enjoy ham and cheese omelets for breakfast, and that I was looking forward to a vacation where I was planning to hunt and fish in a national park.
At the time I was making my comments at this particular conference, I thought I was being informative, responsive, and polite. Ever since, recalling that conference is enough to cause an excruciating knot in my belly.
The people at the conference didn’t know me. They didn’t know me well enough to know that I would try my utmost to avoid saying something offensive. They didn’t know that my good intentions are about the size of the Matterhorn. I had wanted people to hear my presentation as derived from my own intellectual and ethical context, which is metaphorically from the pulpit. That was information I shared in my self-introduction, so in addition to the knowledge that I offended, it still mystifies me that to the listeners, I stumbled so badly.
They heard my remarks in their own worldview, and from that perspective, I should have kept quiet or said something completely different. I realized that too late. There was no way that I could subsequently explain, apologize, or make amends.
Life has many pitfalls, and the more words you speak, the more chance you have to fall into one of those holes. Sometimes we’re running so pell-mell that it looks as if we’re trying deliberately to do a belly-flop into those holes in the ground. It gives me no comfort to know that we all have such memories. I wish there were some way that I could offer some good advice about how to avoid being socially offensive in front of a large crowd of strangers. I didn’t see the trip-wire ahead of time. I didn’t understand that this speaking engagement needed an expertise I didn’t have. I should have been in the audience and not up on the dais.
What lessons I can share with others? Here are some insights that I hope will work, whether you’re giving a formal speech, making a wedding toast, or eating with a group of strangers in a restaurant.
Take some broken comfort that you should have only a few of these soul-cringing memories, no matter how many millions of words you’ve spoken. It means that your instincts are mostly good and in working order.
Always remember the lesson of my mentor that we are responsible for how we are heard. Never be so narcissistic to believe that you can say no wrong. You can. Almost everything that comes from your mouth should go through at least a moment’s analysis ahead of time, even if you are speaking extemporaneously, as I was.
If the stakes are high, that self-analysis has to be more rigorous. Consider the wedding toast that you might make with a couple of drinks already and a room half-full of strangers. If there is a scintilla of concern that what you plan to say might be taken the wrong way, find something else to say altogether. There are very few unuttered words that will leave you with a lifetime of regret.
In the particular experience that I’m referring to, I had allowed others to assure me that I was more expert than I really was. Thinking that you’re an expert when you’re really not is dangerous, when you’re standing behind a mike at a podium. True experts know how to pick words carefully. Make-pretend experts do not. There is less harm in backing out a speaking gig with a firm no-thank-you, than in saying yes and stepping into it.
Finally, give yourself a little break. Yes, I will be mortified by this memory for as long as I live. However, none of us gets out of life without scars. Everyone’s lives have times when we’re walking on a tightrope without a net, we’re going to fall off, and it will hurt. Unless you want to live a life of monastic solitude in abject silence, life has its unavoidable share of pratfalls.
There is something positive about knowing after the fact that you have really blown it; and that you’ll be much more careful in the future. Of such experiences, your ethical foundation is made stronger.
I’ve spoken at many conferences since. I don’t have a life where I can just shut-up. I know that even the best, most carefully chosen word can be misconstrued. I’ll leave it to your ethical compass (and you have to have one) to determine the difference between okay and not-okay. We all have genuine knowledge, experience, and wisdom to share. We must all make sure, though, that we know what we’re talking about in a non-offensive way.
Remember the old dictum that it’s better to be thought a fool than to speak up and remove all doubt.