“If you’re worried about offending someone—you shouldn’t be doing stand-up comedy!” A veteran comic once said to me after a show. He had heard me mention that I was upset about offending a couple of friends who had come to see me perform. At the time I had been doing stand-up for less than a couple of months and I hadn’t really considered the impact of some of my Middle-East jokes on Middle-Easterners. “Besides,” the veteran comic added, “How do you know your friends were upset? Maybe you’re just being paranoid! Did they say something after your set?”
“Not really,” I admitted.
“See?” he said triumphantly.
“They just walked out in the middle of it,” I added.
“Oh,” he shrugged. “Let me tell you something,” he said. He leaned closer as if he were about to share a trade secret (which in a way, he was). “You can change your act and make it completely innocuous and it won’t make a difference. Someone will always be offended. You can’t avoid it. So don’t try.”
Offending people was a risk I eventually learned to accept when performing stand-up comedy, although it was one I always tried to minimize.
However, offending people was a risk I never considered when doing speaking engagements as a psychologist and author. After all, my talks were about my book and the psychology of complaining. I discussed topics such as relationships, customer service, marketing, social media, and consumer psychology. Who could I possibly offend? Whose toes could I possibly step on?
And yet, that warning, “Someone will always be offended” has turned out to be more prophetic than I could have ever imagined. There was the time I gave a talk on couple therapy to mental health professionals. A psychologist attendee asked me to comment on a case in which he described the husband as being “somewhat on the nerdy side with poor communication skills”. I wasn’t thrilled with his characterization and decided to challenge him. “I’m not sure it’s useful to call your patient ‘nerdy’. I mean, I’m assuming here, but it's not as if the guy was a regular at Star Wars conventions!” The psychologist flushed red. Turns out, he himself was a regular at Star Wars conventions (not that there’s anything wrong with that!).
The most recent case in point: This week I had the honor of giving the keynote presentation at MarketingProfs Business2Business Forum in Boston. I gave my talk: How to turn unhappy customers into fans to several hundred business to business marketers—an extremely talented, forward thinking, friendly and open-minded group.
To illustrate how defeatist our complaining psychology mindset is, I described the phenomenon of Complaints Choirs and used the Helsinki Complaints Choir as an example. I originally wanted to use the Chicago or Philadelphia Complaints Choirs as examples—because they sing in English. But I thought it best not to risk offending anyone in the audience from Chicago or Philly. I discussed the Helsinki Choirs’ two chief complaints; the first, that they don’t “get laid enough” and the second that their trams “smell of pee”. I suggested that to resolve the first issue, “Perhaps choir members should avoid taking the tram to their dates…”
But my main point was to illustrate the extent to which we tend to complain to everyone except the actual people who can fix our problems. If instead of singing their complaints in a concert hall, the Helsinki Complaints Choir sang them outside their city hall and insisted their elected officials clean up the trams—their trams might actually get cleaned.
As soon as my talk was over, an attendee marched up to me and said, “I’m from Helsinki!”
My heart sank. “I’m…eh…sure it’s a lovely city!” I said feebly. I had just spent a portion of my talk discussing how to make effective apologies, so I had the presence of mind to quickly apply the principles right there. Thankfully they worked. The marketer in question was both gracious and forgiving.
My next talk is at Google’s NYC offices. The Google folk I know are smart, creative and easy going. I feel pretty certain I won’t offend anyone. But expereince has taught me that even when there are no feet in sight, I'm still likely to find a toe to step on...
Copyright 2011 Guy Winch
Follow me on Twitter @GuyWinch