Is it always OK not to say when you are thinking when someone is talking to you?
In a conversation with a reader we’re calling Tim, the topic of how to keep from prolonging conversations you don’t particularly want to be having came up. Tim was asking if it had been wrong when speaking with an old friend on the telephone that he found himself really wanting the conversation to end. Instead of reacting fully to anything the friend was saying, Tim would simply utter, “Oh” or “Yup” or “OK.” Fearing that if he said anything more substantial it would prolong the phone call, Tim chose not to and, as he had hoped, he was able to extract himself from the call in relative short order.
I told Tim that there was nothing wrong with the impulse he had. While it might have been more direct for Tim to simply tell his friend he needed to get off the phone, I can understand that Tim didn’t want to appear rude.
As chance would have it, I told Tim that I had found myself in a similar situation recently. An old acquaintance I hadn’t heard from in years and really don’t know well, called my office phone that doesn’t ring all that often. After it became clear that the caller wanted to gripe about a shared acquaintance and seemed mostly to want me to agree with his take, I found myself simply wanting to get off the call. (The thought crossed my mind that I could be home having a nice piece of fish.) I neither agreed or disagreed with him, hoping the conversation would end. Eventually, I politely told him I had to go which happened to be the truth.
But in the course of the conversation, the caller made a comment that struck me as racist followed with the sentence: “And you know I’m the least racist person you know.”
His response reinforced for me that there are times that it’s not always OK to ignore what someone is saying simply because you would rather be doing something else.
Generally, if you find yourself having to follow-up a statement you make with a comment that you are not saying something racist or that you are not a racist, it’s a good signal that what you just said is indeed likely racist and that by virtue of the fact that you called attention to it in that manner you know perfectly well that what you just said was racist.
I did respond by telling the old acquaintance precisely that. He did not try to defend his comment and we moved on, but he knew where I stood. The conversation ended shortly after.
There are times when such incidents arise and I regret afterward when I don’t find an opportunity or the courage to call people out. But the right thing is to confront people when they say something to you that is so objectionable that to let it stand might be perceived as condoning the sentiment. And because calling racists out on racist comments or behavior is the right thing to do.
Jeffrey L. Seglin, author of The Simple Art of Business Etiquette: How to Rise to the Top by Playing Nice, is a senior lecturer in public policy and director of the communications program at Harvard's Kennedy School. He is also the administrator of www.jeffreyseglin.com, a blog focused on ethical issues.
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