The last few days have been strange ones in many workplaces.
Much of America is getting revved up for Thanksgiving — prepping turkeys, cleaning houses, packing suitcases. But as a backdrop, we waited and debated.
We waited for news from the Ferguson, Mo., grand jury and debated whether America’s Dad, Bill Cosby, was a longtime serial rapist or the victim of a resurrected smear campaign.
If you talked to pretty much anyone at work they had an opinion on it all — their favorite side dish for Thanksgiving, how people would or should react in Ferguson, and the degree to which they thought Cosby was guilty of the allegations brought against him.
Even though all these events have nothing to do with the actual work most people do, it has everything to do with how our co-workers process the world, which, in turn, affects how we work together.
The issues surrounding the events of Ferguson have been challenging workplace conversations for months. Many black employees have sought my input on just how far they could go in expressing their opinions at work about police brutality and general issues involving racial discrimination in America. In other words, how to maintain authenticity in the very environment that usually requires you to leave parts of you tucked away in your wallet.
I’ve also had white workers ask me my opinion on how to deal with discussion of Ferguson in the workplace because they just don’t understand why it’s a racial issue, why black co-workers are still upset about it, and why black people don’t focus on the issues in the black community they deem more pressing.
In both cases, I’ve advised people to stay as far way from the conversation as possible because it’s too raw, hot-button and complex — with many workplaces unable to handle the weight of such a racially-laden story.
And the Cosby story could be just as volatile. The opinions people give on this topic are also very instructive about how people view sexual assault, power dynamics, patriarchy, racial subtext and other issues.
Similarly, people need to keep the Cosby conversation to a minimum because it, too, is a weighty subject the workplace shouldn’t have to bear. Depending on which survey you rely on, an alarmingly large number of women — and some men, too — are rape victims who have never reported it. You will never know exactly who those co-workers are.
The big problem with these news stories in particular is that a lot of people are running around giving opinions based solely on how they have experienced the world. Too many people evaluate and harshly judge and dismiss others based, not on putting themselves in someone else’s shoes, but rather on how people should have acted based on the shoes they walk around in.
How is that helpful? You already know how you would react in the situations you’ve been in. There’s no challenge there. No need to practice empathy or effort in analyzing how the circumstances of another came to be.
Lately, I’ve heard too many people start their analysis of something with some version of, “If it were me.” That’s fine, up to a point. But people daily have to make decisions that nothing in their life has previously prepared them for. You don’t know how you will react to the grief of losing a parent, sibling or child until that day comes when you do. You don’t know just how you would react as a victim of a heinous crime unless and until you are actually living through it.
The list is countless, just like the variations of life. And generally we are all better served making assessments about the facts and choices that individual people have actually encountered, rather than evaluating the choices based on the make-believe reality we impose on them.
That’s a good approach for work, and a good approach for family holidays. And it’s a good approach for evaluating incendiary news events involving people you don’t know and circumstances you don’t live.
Send questions to Michelle T. Johnson on Facebook at www.facebook.com/diversitydiva.