You want to know the quickest way to create a workplace diversity issue?
Start talking about current events. Better yet, start dispassionately or intellectually talking about a current event that your fellow co-worker feels passionate or personal about.
And then be prepared to feel like Tom Hanks in “You’ve Got Mail,” after his character says his business decision wasn’t personal. Meg Ryan’s character replies: “What is that supposed to mean? I am so sick of that. All that means is that it wasn’t personal to you. But it was personal to me.”
And with the predominance of the Internet and smartphones, world events and national tragedies prominently poke their way into our conversations — fast.
There are entire generations of working Americans who don’t know what it’s like to have a water cooler talk in the morning based on what they saw on the evening news the night before. Now, the entire time you’re at work, fresh fodder for co-workers’ political and social commentary is being served up by email news alerts, Facebook, Twitter and even listening to NPR at your desk.
You can work side by side with individuals, people whom over time you begin to think of as friends, and it becomes very easy to skip over when an issue is personal to them while it’s just news to you.
The fighting in the Gaza Strip, for example, could be personal beyond your ability to know to someone else. To you, talking about it could be simply commentary on the historical or political science implications of long-term disputes. But to the people right around you, you could be talking about their family, their religion, a personal identity that you have no understanding of.
Another example is the weekend riots in St. Louis. Race, under the best of circumstances, can be a dicey topic of conversation with people you don’t know well. Discussing riots based on a racial issue involving blacks and white police officers is rarely a “best of circumstances” topic.
Workplace friendships are often just that, workplace relationships based on friendliness but no real depth. So some people, depending on the background, can have deep emotional attachments or sensitivities that never come up in casual conversation but that can be sparked in an instant by a news event.
So is one to never bring up anything from current events at work?
Never is a big word. But it is important to stay vigilant on the effect your opinions have on others. Notice whether they are getting irritated, emotional, impassioned. Notice when a usually talkative or effervescent person gets quiet.
In other words, show some sensitivity, and know when to back your way out of a conversation.
Send questions to Michelle T. Johnson on Facebook.