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What Was He Thinking?

by Matthew Arnold Stern

“Matt, you’re not really going to talk about the Don Imus case, are you?”

Yes, I am.

“But we can’t talk about those things in Toastmasters!”

Yes, we should.

If you dig into the Don Imus case, you will find at its core that it isn’t really a racism problem, a sexism problem, a political correctness problem, or a corporate media problem. It is really a communications problem.

If we look at the story that way, we will find two critical lessons we must all learn:

  • Think before we speak.
  • Our words have consequences.

Think before we speak: That’s Communications 101, isn’t it? But think of all the times we say things that we later regret. Even though we’re supposed to think before we open our mouths, our thinking gets clouded. This can happen in a couple of ways.

The first way: assumptions. That was how Imus got into trouble. It was probably clear in his mind that he was telling a joke, although I don’t know what could possibly be funny about ridiculing accomplished women athletes. He probably assumed, “My audience knows I’m joking. They know my brand of humor. They won’t take offense.” As we all know, he assumed wrong.

Imus made one other wrong assumption. He assumed that his message would only go out to his intended audience. I’m sure he didn’t have Jesse Jackson and Al Sharpton in mind when he concocted his little joke.

This danger isn’t only limited to media personalities. Think about the guy who writes an off-color e-mail about his boss, and it gets circulated around until it winds up in his boss’ inbox. With camera phones and MP3 recorders, we can’t assume that our personal conversations will stay personal. We need to be careful about what we say because we never know who will eventually hear it.

The second and most common way our thinking gets clouded: emotion. This too has been in the news a lot lately.

When we get hurt and when we feel angry, our conversations can turn into brawls. Think about when you’ve seen barroom brawls in the movies, or – heaven forbid – when you’ve experienced one in real life. The combatants may start off with fists, but then they look for weapons. They may smash a beer bottle against the bar, grab a chair, or if they came prepared, draw a knife or gun out of their boot.

In a verbal brawl, our words are our weapons. We will grab any that are handy and can cause the most damage. You may not have a single racist thought. But if you are angry at someone, and all you know about that person is his or her ethnicity, a racial slur may be the sharpest weapon you can find.

As horrible as racial slurs are, they are not nearly as destructive as the things we say to those we know – especially those we love. Hot buttons, personal confidences, intimate weaknesses – those can be the weapons of choice when we are angry at a loved one. The results can be devastating.

By giving these explanations, I’m not excusing those people’s behavior. In fact, it is impossible to excuse their behavior. That is because of the second lesson: Our words have consequences.

Some have said that Don Imus shouldn’t have been fired because of what we said. “He did apologize.” I have seen a few people get fired for things that they said at work, and they didn’t get a two-week suspension first. Even if you don’t get fired, your words can destroy relationships, undermine trust, and ruin your reputation. They can damage the self-esteem of those you love.

It doesn’t matter how much you apologize or how many sensitivity training classes you take. Those hateful words will always stick in the minds of those you hurt. Our words are like bullets from a gun. Once you squeeze the trigger, you can’t stop them or prevent them from causing damage.

Don Imus’ example provides a powerful lesson for all of us. We must think before we speak. We cannot let assumptions and emotion cloud our thinking. This is crucial because our words have consequences. Once we speak something hateful, we can never take it back or completely erase their damage. If we can learn these lessons, something good will come from this experience.