I imagine what I’m about to say is likely to offend someone.
Not because what I’m writing is controversial. It isn’t religious or political or related to sports — none of the usual touchstones of contention we’re advised to avoid at business events and family dinners. It’s just that it seems darn near impossible these days to not tread on a toe, no matter how daintily one steps.
Nearly 22 years back, in one of my very first columns, I made the mistake of mentioning the many “stop lights” I encountered on my drive to work. A few days later I received a letter from an incensed reader berating me for being so ill-educated as to not know that the correct term is “traffic lights.”
“We don’t call them ‘go lights’ when they’re green,” she wrote, and then suggested I might benefit from more schooling, as I was clearly lacking.
I mentioned the scolding to my editor.
“Get used to it,” he said. “There are lots of folks out there who live to complain.”
He advised me to grow a thick skin, said it would serve me well if I learned to let such things roll off my back.
There were many more writing missteps over the years. One column, about how men differ from women when they’re sick, scored me a death threat. Another, about breaking wind, triggered 223 emails and letters (112 in favor, 111 against).
I’ve inadvertently offended the grammar police on many occasions. Even had one reader who made a hobby of circling every “I” in a column and would mail his collections to me a few times each year.
“You can’t hit a home run every time you’re at bat,” a writer friend said. “There are times you’re just going to whiff, and someone will always be there to call you on it.”
And so, as suggested, I allowed my skin to thicken and accepted it wasn’t possible to please everyone. I also gradually developed a sense for what topics to avoid or how to approach them so as not to rankle, a skill that occasionally helps in other areas of life.
For instance, while helping plan a large event at work, I was asked to write guidelines for how the staff should dress for an awards ceremony. The task seemed simple — until I learned that the previous year, offense had been taken to wording that was gender specific. Men had been asked to wear ties, and women dresses or dress slacks. Attaching genders to clothing has become verboten, as it apparently can be interpreted as meaning the company disapproves of those who land somewhere in between.
I wrote the new code, and then read and reread it many times, evaluating each word for its potential to rankle. When I hit send on the company-wide email, I held my breath and waited. I heard no complaints, so apparently managed to straddle the line.
There are so many platforms available now where folks can rail publicly about every perceived injustice or slight. Someone will whine, and others take offense in support.
I remember an episode of “The Andy Griffith Show” where Deputy Fife wrote Gomer a ticket, and then Gomer spotted Fife doing the same thing and called him on it. “Citizen’s arrest! Citizen’s arrest!” Fife ended up resigning (albeit short term) as a result.
We seem to be living in a time where folks are calling out “Citizen’s arrest!” constantly and en masse, causing the often well-meaning, yet bumbling Fifes to resign or scramble to make peace with those they offended.
Last weekend, as I returned home from the event with the dress code that caused me such stress, I was struggling to get my wobbly-wheeled suitcase through a doorway. A man rushed over and held open the door for me. When I thanked him, he told me he’d once attempted to show the same courtesy to a woman, and it had infuriated her.
“She said, ‘Do I look incapable of holding open my own door?’”
And he ended up apologizing for an attempt to be kind.
It’s a weird world we’re creating. The playing field might be more level, but thin skins are delicate. Weak.
Having said all this, can I share a sudden realization that has me a little amused? It’s that I’ve just inadvertently played their same game, having filled this entire space talking about how offended I am by those who are so easily offended.
It’s funny to find out the high horse you’re riding is just another donkey instead.