Mortified

My workplace closed on Columbus Day. No, we didn’t get a day off to celebrate the violence and pestilence Columbus inflicted on the indigenous peoples of the Americas. Instead, we held our annual all staff meeting. Forty of us gathered in a conference room for a day of briefings and trainings. I went first. Get the boring finances out of the way early. Save the interesting program-oriented sessions for later in the day. No one said that to me, but I assume that’s what they were thinking.

I hate public speaking. I need to give several financial presentations a month, but those are seated at a table in the middle of a meeting. Standing up before a room filled with people freaks me out. No podium, nowhere to hide, just me, naked (figuratively) before my coworkers. 

Russ, the IT guy, was still setting up the projector. I felt awkward with the silence. Off the cuff, I blurted out: “I’m going to tell you the only joke I know… Why did the Siamese twins move to London?”

Calls of Why, Why Jeff, Why did the Siamese twins move to London?

“So the other one could drive.”

This got a great laugh. I probably disarmed those expecting a boring briefing, and it relaxed me so I could have fun with my presentation—something I rarely do. When I finished up, we took a break. I texted Susan, bursting with pride: I killed my presentation. Then I went to use the restroom. I began thinking, is it racist to call conjoined twins Siamese twins? Does that offend people from Thailand? People stopped referring to Thailand as Siam almost a century ago, does anyone still equate the two? Did I just imply that all conjoined twins come from Thailand? 

I returned to the conference room feeling uneasy. No one looked at me askew, and I began to relax.

The next segment of the meeting was a webinar on how to deal with customers using racist language. The presenter brought up several examples of racist jokes and stereotypical comments that reminded me too much of my joke. I sank lower in my seat. Sitting in the front row, I fought hard to resist turning around to see the glares I imagined burning into the back of my head. “No problem, Jeff,” I thought, “just make an apology at the end of the webinar.” I began to breathe easier. But then the webinar lasted almost two hours. 

The examples kept coming. I could only imagine what my coworkers were thinking about me. I wished I could go back and undo that moment. It used to be such a fun joke. How is it possible that it became offensive since I last used it?

Growing up in the sixties, my family had a giant hardback book called Tell Me Another Joke. I essentially learned to read from this book. My brothers and I lounged around our family room reading jokes to each other. Several years ago, I told my preteen children a few of the jokes I remembered, and then, like any good baby boomer, I immediately went to Ebay and found a copy to buy. 

When the book came, I was appalled. Many (most?) of the jokes relied on prejudices against ethnic groups to create the “humor.” The Scottish are cheap. The Irish are drunks. The Jews are greedy. People from India are poor. The Africans are… well never mind. Disgusted, I threw out the book. Here I am, ten years later, perpetuating the same stereotypes as my racist book.

When the webinar ended, I offered my apology: “Earlier today, I told a joke about ‘Siamese’ twins.” I made air-quotes when I said Siamese. “After watching that last training segment, I see how inappropriate that was.” All eyes on me, many heads nodding in agreement… “I’m mortified. I’m sorry. I think it’s time I put that joke away for good.”

The purpose of these training days is to educate our staff. Inadvertently, I did just that, and especially myself. It’s definitely time to inventory the phrases I grew up with and look for others that have always been offensive and thankfully are becoming no longer tolerated by society. The list is endless. It’s not being politically correct, it’s being polite. It’s treating people as equals. I can do better. I think we all can. 

When I related this story to Eli, he told me he never heard the term Siamese twins before. Apparently many of you have already made much more progress than me. 

From Wikipedia: Chang and Eng Bunker (1811–1874) were brothers born in Siam (now Thailand) who traveled widely for many years and were labeled as The Siamese Twins. Chang and Eng were joined at the torso by a band of flesh, cartilage, and their fused livers. In modern times, they could have been easily separated. Due to the brothers’ fame and the rarity of the condition, the term “Siamese twins” came to be associated with conjoined twins.

30 thoughts on “Mortified

  1. That’s a great story. And so easy to do what you did so nice work all around, copping to it and so on. Most jokes are that way, it seems. I’m glad to see a real trend away from that finally, and the emphasis our kids put on not tolerating slurs. Don’t beat yourself up over it Jeff! Thanks for sharing.

    Liked by 2 people

    • Yes! this. Don’t dwell on it too long, I think you did a bold and appropriate thing, standing up at the end to apologize.
      There used to be a bike trail called Angry Midget, now renamed Angry M, even though the guy who helped build it was a little person, and didn’t mind.
      Because I think we’re all aiming to be better. 🙂

      Liked by 2 people

      • Right, it can be problematic when people embrace slurs about their own minority group. So many are standing by looking for ‘permission’ to say the same thing. It’s tricky because the trail builder has the right to own that term, but then it encourages others, with less pure intent, to use that language.

        Liked by 2 people

    • Is there a trend away from this? I suppose overall, yes, but it’s scary how so many people are backlashing against so called ‘woke’ sensibility. It’s a strange feeling when I, who thinks he’s been working for racial justice for over a decade, find myself in this hole. Takes a recalibration of what I know about myself.

      Liked by 3 people

      • Well my 15-year-old daughter was in a group chat where her homecoming date’s friend used the N-slur, then another the R-slur (“retard”) and she told her date she wasn’t going to the dance with him because she didn’t like his friends, and that’s kind of the new normal behavior as I can see, to not tolerate that kind of language, and frankly I don’t think it was that way AT ALL growing up in the 70s-slash-80s for me. Sadly I used that R-slur and just didn’t know it was a slur, or did but didn’t care because I wasn’t really taught otherwise as it appears Charlotte is, at school (and of course reinforced at home, though it’s mostly at school that behavior is becoming less tolerated). That’s the trend I see from my small corner of the world, and I’m glad for it. I probably sound like “this is my view,” don’t get in the way of what I see ha! But that’s how it is to some extent, isn’t it? Our little views are like everything we see.

        Liked by 3 people

        • Well rural PA versus urban WA. I suppose there will be some differences. I think even in impolite society, those slurs are mostly out of vogue. Appalling to me that I jumped in with both feet. I initially wrote this for the company newsletter. Susan said “way too rough’. She told me to blog it instead.

          Liked by 3 people

        • Wow! Wrote it for the company newsletter! That is bold, and a good instinct. Blog much safer, though all depends on your goals right? Safety or change, ha. It’s a very compelling story and post.

          Liked by 2 people

  2. We’re never too old to learn. It’s a testament to your character that you were able to do the mea culpa at the end.
    You can teach an old dog new tricks. Happy BDay!

    Liked by 3 people

    • Thanks for the birthday wishes Blair. Yes, I guess I’ve fallen into that ‘older’ age group where I need to work extra hard to prove that this old dog can still learn new tricks.

      Like

  3. ‘Round ’82, a joke-telling boozing mate from work came into the office one morning and declared he would never again tell a racist joke. He never did.
    Up until now, John Anderson has been the only person I know who has done this. So, I salute you now, Jeff Cann.
    DD

    Liked by 1 person

  4. I think we had that same jokebook when I was younger. When I think of those jokes now – wow – they were really wrong. Sounds like a live-and-learn moment at your presentation. You told the joke, but it sounds like a lot of people laughed at it. So, it was a live-and-learn moment for many!

    Liked by 1 person

    • It would be nice just to blame the whole thing on impulsive, unfiltered behavior of Tourette Syndrome, but there’s no way I could get away with that. When I wrote this, I thought I was going to use it in our organization newsletter. Susan said people would be picking up the phone to complain by the second sentence. I guess I’m used to writing whatever I want on my blog and I’m not used to censoring my essays. Hope you’re well.

      Liked by 1 person

  5. I admire your courage and honesty, Jeff. It must have taken some guts to get up and apologise in front of all those people. I had a similar, although not the same, joke book when I was younger, too. It never occurred to me then that those jokes could be offensive. It’s interesting that what was considered acceptable then is no longer okay these days. Just as well, really. I also thought you were brave in being able to stand up and talk at a conference in the first place. My son does a similar thing in his work. If I had the choice between public speaking and having a tooth pulled, I’d rather be toothless! Also, in my ignorance, I wasn’t sure what age baby boomers were, so I had to google it! Although I’m a bit older than you, I’m definitely in that category, too. I don’t know why I haven’t worked that one out before. Anyway, from one baby boomer to another, I hope you had a wonderful birthday. I think it was on Monday, wasn’t it?

    Liked by 1 person

    • My coworkers are all really nice and I feel comfortable around most of them. Public speaking got way easier for me all at once. One day I gave a presentation and I felt fine. I’ve never equated the two, but now I think it is related to medicating my OCD, it was around the same time. My birthday was wonderful. Now I’m just 60-something. Jesus, how did that happen?

      Liked by 1 person

  6. Great read. I cracked up as soon as you told the joke and thought “Oh no, Jeff, you didn’t” The story flowed especially well after the intro about Columbus, I thought. LOL. However I think any of us from your generation and mine have faced similar embarrassments, hopefully in a group of only 3 or 4 others. At some point, I learned to make myself very conscious of not using the terms, phrases and jokes used by my parents, terms that were hurtful or demeaning to others. Things they said without even realizing that fact. I was proud of my children who all graduated in the first decade of this century for walking out of parties where others were using slurs or hurtful language. But your comment, “It’s scary how so many people are backlashing against so called ‘woke’ sensibility” totally resonates with my thoughts. It’s like people believe – “It’s your problem for being sensitive and feeling hurt, not my problem for saying and doing something to cause you hurt.” I feel like we have regressed in the last 5 or so years. Your honesty might wake up some others.

    Liked by 1 person

    • I really wish someone at work would say: hey Jeff, it wasn’t so bad; or hey I read your blog post, don’t sweat it. I feel a bit like a pariah. I’m really disgusted with the ‘antiwoke’ movement in the country and the book banning (which is showing up at my work too). I don’t want to get lumped in with those people.

      Like

  7. This is crazy but I’m actually related to Chang and Eng, which is why I clicked on the article. My great-grandmother was married to one of them. Pretty disturbing to read up on their history as slave masters, and allegedly brutal ones at that.

    If you haven’t already you should read up on them. It’s quite confusing, and also shows how ridiculous the construct of race is.

    This really opened up a strange wormhole for me, thank you for sharing.

    Liked by 2 people

    • What a fantastic claim to fame. Sorry I slandered your family heritage (really sorry about the whole mess). I read over the Wikipedia piece on them. I had no idea they were such a big deal in the united states. I’m glad you stopped by,

      Liked by 1 person

  8. I have to admit I got a good laugh out of your joke. But I can only imagine how you must have been feeling during that meeting. I admire you for making your apology.

    Do you think the joke would be ok if you used the words “conjoined twins”, or would that be making fun of people with such a condition? Maybe the joke could work with husband and wife, but that would requtie reliance on stereotypes.

    hmmm… such a great punchline, there’s got to be way to set it up…

    Liked by 1 person

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