True story: Two people compete for an open supervisor position. A gets it and now supervises B. Supervisor A immediately makes worker B come in for multiple, successive Saturdays to train A on technical skills that the new boss is lacking. While at the Saturday trainings, A might say, “sorry I have to take this [personal] call,” and leave B sitting for over an hour until returning from the call. A never thanks B for giving up six Saturdays.
A and B unsurprisingly begin a downwards escalating two-year relationship, where A continues to assert power and B cooperates with an increasingly passive-aggressive manner. B’s back goes out (are you surprised that emotional stress helps induce physical pain?). B’s doctor says, “no work for you for 2 weeks.” B gets a call at home from A who says, “I don’t care if you drive, take a bus, a cab, or a bike, but you need to get to work,” and, later on the call says, “I don’t care what your doctor says.” We cringe. Really, she said that? Yes, but unfortunately for A, her call to B had hit B’s old fashioned, home answering machine — the kind with the mini cassette tape — before B could pick up the phone, and the trusty machine continued to record A’s entire CRINGEWORTHY power trip for posterity — oh, yes, and for HR. A, fortunately, became “not A” at that company. She was fired.
My kids nicknamed me “wild card,” because like lots of dads I blurt cringeworthy things. An innocent example would be making use of “their” language, for example, I might say, “Dude, that’s really on fleek.”* That might evoke a post-cringe comment like: “Really, Dad? Give it up.” Like A in the story above, I may co-opt language or say something that’s just not PC. I suppose I do, because though my offenses are hopefully less egregious than A’s abusive behavior, my sense of duty/power as a parent can bleed (“do you know who pays for that cell phone, young lady?!”) into a sense of privilege in my home. I make them cringe because I act like I’m exempt from social custom.
I authored a bigger cringe moment at the beach on Lake Michigan last week. Acting like my teenage days, I barked at my sister, telling her to quit telling me what to do. She noted my hypocrisy, which generated a bit of a self-cringe moment. The ensuing back-and-forth showed how a cringeworthy moment gets worse. Our innocent, sunning sister-in-law and smattering of nieces and nephews, felt the emotional heat as unkind things were said and my sister lobbed an F-bomb my way. Our fight led to their flight, as kids scampered off their blankets and into the water. I too fled the cringeworthy kerfuffle by donning my headphones to listen to my book on Elon Musk, the genius who created SpaceX and Tesla (and whose nerdiness, ambition, and power routinely lead to statements that made classmates, employees, and now readers cringe). My sister, stomped off, fussing at me as I increased the volume in my speakers. Sorry to make you cringe with-at me.
Some comedians, like say, Chris Rock, Louie CK, or Donald Trump) are cringe-creating machines. We feel uncomfortable for them, and for those they demean with their insensitivity. Of course, Donald Trump – like A in my story, and me in my own life, is NOT a comedian. He like we, have power-over people, and we don’t just generate cringeworthy moments, but enduring anxiety, shame, and hurt. What can we do?
First, become aware of how YOU make your kids, your staff, your siblings cringe? Do you take responsibility if or when you cross that line? Second, stand up! What do you do when an A in your shop (or in line at Starbucks) embarrasses himself with cringeworthy behavior, but doesn’t seem to know or care? The fact is the B’s of the world seldom have answering machines to support them. If they raise the issue – like a serious one of racial or sexist or other “well-meaning” jokes – who will bear the risk of their coming forth? They suspect they will, so they just “suck it up.”
You can’t just cringe and slink into the lake when hurtful things are said. At least not when you
Lead with your best self.
* For the meaning of “on fleek,” see this Bustle article.