How Sensitive is Too Sensitive?
© 2023 Lane Wallace
Aviation for Women magazine, November/December issue, 2023
A friend recently shared a conversation he’d had with his 22-year-old daughter. While visiting an aerospace museum, they’d encountered three rest room door symbols: a man, a woman, and an astronaut. “All I said was, ‘I don’t get the astronaut,’” he recounted. “And she turned on me, said, ‘I find that offensive!’ and stormed off.”
Important to note is that this friend is one of the most enlightened people I know; someone I talk to regularly about ways to further diversity and inclusion. He’d related the conversation because his company had asked him to create some guidelines for dealing with “offensive” behavior in employees. And the conversation with his daughter illustrated just how difficult that task is.
‘I honestly didn’t get what the astronaut was supposed to signify,” he said. “Probably non-binary genders. But does my lack of understanding constitute offensive behavior?”
I have a degree in why communication so often goes sideways, and why others often interpret or hear something different than what we thought we said or meant. But given that what one person finds unremarkable can be the same thing another finds offensive, it’s a valid question. What can or should we expect in a workplace, in terms of others’ words and actions?
To answer that, we first need to consider what a workplace is. Work is a place we go to accomplish set tasks in collaboration with other professionals. We get paid to be there. It’s not our home, our therapist’s office, or our “safe place” where we get to be all of ourselves. Our employers and colleagues want to see the segment that constitutes our professional selves, and they expect us to bring our most mature, responsible, and competent effort to our jobs. They also expect us to work in a civil, respectful fashion with people from all kinds of backgrounds, belief systems, and worldviews.
Given those constraints, and the fact that not everyone manages to fulfill those expectations, what can we expect from employers and colleagues? First and foremost, we should expect to be protected from intentional harm. Sexual assault, sexual harassment (especially from a superior), or intentional humiliation, intimidation, or degradation are all premeditated acts meant to harm, and we should not tolerate any of them.
But the key word there is “intentional.” One of the hardest parts of working in diverse groups is judging someone else’s intent. The same sentence uttered by a guy teasing a female colleague he respects and supports and who’s in on the joke, and a guy who resents that woman’s presence and wants to make her feel small, has drastically different implications. So how do we judge intent? It’s not an exact science. But we can usually make a good assessment by looking at body language and facial expressions (is there a sneer?), thinking of what else we know about that person, their behavior and attitudes … and when all else fails, asking.
A number of years ago, I was at an airshow where a museum was selling biplane rides as a fundraiser … until the plane groundlooped and tore some fabric off its wingtip. The museum’s mechanics were too busy to fix it. But I knew how to do fabric work. I’d trained with Ray Stits, founder of Stits Aircraft Covering, himself. And the mechanics knew that. “That tear isn’t bad,” I told them. “I could have it flying again in a couple of hours.” “That’d be great!” the head mechanic said.
So there I was, with my tools, Poly-Fiber, and temperature-calibrated iron to shrink the fabric on the wing, with a small group of observers behind a rope line. As I applied the iron to the fabric, I heard a man say, “They’re letting her work without supervision?” And another answer, “Well, it’s ironing, right? I guess that makes sense for a woman.”
My first thought was to show them the power of that iron, on their faces. But instead, I paused. I looked at the men who’d spoken. They smiled and waved. Wow. They hadn’t intended harm. They were just ignorant. In their world, their words weren’t a slam. So I put down the iron and walked over. “I’m using an iron because it’s a consistent source of heat,” I explained. “But I’m working on this plane because I was trained by an expert in fabric repair. I worked hard to learn this skill, and lives depend upon the quality of my work. So when you make comments comparing it to a housewife ironing, can you see why I’d find that really insulting, even if you didn’t mean to insult me?” The men looked awkward and embarrassed. “It’s okay,” I told them. “Just think about that, next time.” For the next hour, those men were my biggest fans, telling everyone who walked by what a great mechanic I was.
I could have made two enemies, who’d be more convinced than ever that women were annoying and didn’t belong. Instead, I created two supporters. And if I’d dressed them down, there would’ve been no un-saying what I’d said. As a friend who once did that (and we’ve all done that, at one point or another) said, “turned out the guy didn’t mean what I’d thought he’d meant. But it took me six months to repair that relationship.”
By the same token, if those around us make so many comments or jokes that we feel completely excluded or put down every time we walk in a room, it’s worth addressing. But unless it feels intentional, we’ll get a lot further if we take a softer approach. It’s possible to explain or ask people to think about their impact on others, or even to refrain from comments like that around you, without telling them they’re inherently wrong. Give them the space to be them, and they’re more likely to give you the space to be you.
If colleagues aren’t interested in listening, even if we use a soft approach and give them that space, it’s probably intentional exclusion. And anything intentional warrants a discussion with management about both boundaries and baseline standards of respect required for strong teamwork. But focus on the team. Leadership cares more about team performance than any individual’s happiness.
We are never going to work in a place where everyone sees the world our way. People are going to say and believe things we find offensive. But if we want the right to have our identities accepted, and to hold whatever opinions and worldviews we have without harassment, we have to be willing to give others the same right. Even if we find those views outdated or offensive. We should have protection from intentional harm. But beyond that, we need to find a place in the middle where we can set aside or work around those differences—recognizing our own capacity for misunderstanding, while cutting our fellow humans some slack for being different, lacking understanding, or offenses that weren’t actually meant to offend.