A few weekends ago, I was invited to a luncheon. On and off throughout the gathering, the hostess and I chatted. We had a good conversation and I was happy because I felt really comfortable around her.
At some point toward the end of the meal, she mentioned that’s it time for the afternoon prayer for Sabbath. Being Jewish myself, I made a joke and said, “You’re so Jewish.” Immediately, the woman felt the need to defend herself to me, explaining how her husband was not raised that observant, and therefore now actively practices his faith. Needless to say, I instantly felt like a jerk.
This served as a huge reminder to me that I need to be sensitive to those around me, especially when I really don’t know them. If I’m around friends, they know when I say that sort of thing that I am absolutely joking. But she didn’t. To her, I was taking a jab at a man she loved and respected.
Later, I did seek the woman out and apologize for saying what I did. I explained that I meant her husband no disrespect whatsoever and that I’m just a bit of a jokester. Though I think she understood, the reality is that I would go back in time and take it all back if I could. In that moment, I had hurt her feelings and that was the last thing I wanted to do.
Has this ever happened to you, where you’ve said something in jest only to realize that you wound up offending the person you were speaking to? Things can turn badly pretty quickly for sure.
For me, this situation underlies the importance of knowing your audience, of knowing who you’re speaking to, so you remain sensitive to the ideas, topics, or statements that can potentially create a negative response. It involves remembering that, even if you don’t really mean what you said, it may still cause some hurt feelings.
This is true in our professional lives too. It isn’t uncommon to develop a relationship with someone that you’ve worked with over time—whether as a vendor, coworker, or boss—causing you to relax a little when you talk to them. But how well do you really know them? Can you really anticipate what kind of jokes or remarks will push their buttons?
That’s why it helps to think before you speak, at least until you know someone really well and can be assured that they’ll understand that your jokes are merely jokes and that you mean no harm. Until then, it’s probably best to just keep all of your one-liners to yourself. At least, that’s what I intend to do.