I’ve noticed that when people are first beginning their DEI journeys, they often become particularly frustrated with the idea of monitoring their language, e.g. to avoid microaggressions. An attendee of one of my workshops approached me in a huff, angered by the possibility that she might offend someone simply by saying Good morning! For those of us who feel frustrated by the idea of another item being loaded onto our plates, my advice is this: lean into close examinations of our language rather than pushing against them. What do I mean? I’ll explain with a short personal story.
When I first moved to the U.S. in 1996, Seinfeld was one of the most popular shows on television. Time after time, I heard praise for how hilarious it was. Finally, in November 2022, I was able to watch it myself. Let me tell you — I was shocked by the inappropriate humor. It felt like every other line of dialogue, someone was the butt of the “joke” because of an element of their identity or personhood that they could not control. At the time, perhaps this was considered “funny,” but today we have come to realize that if “jokes” are hurting someone, they really aren’t jokes at all. And there is true harm incurred by this type of “humor”; when we watch people make fun of others for factors out of their control, this “joke” becomes tacit approval for us to do the same. We, too, can make a “joke” about someone’s identity because It’s normal! Everyone does this! without considering the negative impact those words can have.
One show I absolutely adored when I arrived in the U.S. was Friends. I am not kidding when I say that I bought every single one of the DVDs for each season! At the time, I didn’t see the show as offensive, but just because I didn’t see it as such doesn’t mean it was not. Jennifer Aniston recently commented that today’s humor, compared to when Friends was made, is “a little tricky because you have to be very careful, which makes it really hard for comedians, because the beauty of comedy is that we make fun of ourselves, make fun of life.” But what she doesn’t highlight here is that Friends, like so many shows of its time, also involved making fun of others, and to make fun of others is not true comedy.
Of course, what do my experiences with Seinfeld and Friends have to do with examining our language? Well, it is only through increasing my own awareness regarding discrimination that I have come to realize how my own humor, my own words have hurt people without me realizing. Instead of being wary about if what we say will potentially offend or hurt someone, we should embrace the curiosity about other people and their journeys. To consider the impact of our words before we speak is to show we care about the people around us! What could be a more admirable goal than that?
Dima Ghawi is the founder of a global talent development company with a primary mission for advancing individuals in leadership. Through keynote speeches, training programs and executive coaching, Dima has empowered thousands of professionals across the globe to expand their leadership potential. In addition, she provides guidance to business executives to develop diversity, equity, and inclusion strategies and to implement a multi-year plan for advancing quality leaders from within the organization.