When I was a kid I adored my oldest brother Tim and his wife Sue. They married when he was in the Navy serving in ‘Nam and she lived with my family for a year until he was discharged. It was like magically gaining another adult sister, and I’ve always loved her just that way, even many years later when she is no longer an actual in-law. She was beautiful and sophisticated to my mind, big eyes and makeup and teased hair. I remember them coming to surprise me at school when he was home on leave, and with pride how the other elementary age boys in my class ogled her.
I stayed with them in their first apartment for a weekend while my folks were out of town and made a pest of myself, teasing Sue like an 11-year-old little brother would. I remember that apartment and that weekend with special magical fondness: Sue making her fabulous scratch pizza, hearing my brother explain Iron Butterfly’s In-A-Gadda-Da-Vida and its horrible story late at night before falling asleep on their wicker couch.
The next day they took me home and my brother unveiled to us all a special painting he had had commissioned of Sue: an oil “Glamor Shots” of the day. It was gorgeous to my eyes, her hair swept up, in an off the shoulder blue wrap, vignetted on black velvet. She looked like a movie star. I was thunder-struck and blurted, “Wow! Sue, you’re so beautiful! You look so different!” I meant it from the bottom of my heart, and was completely knocked for a loop when my Tim virtually exploded at me for being disrespectful. I remember him saying as my dad tried to calm him down, “I’ve had it! He’s been riding her all weekend!” I fled to my room, completely dumbfounded by why my compliment upset him so much.
It bothered me for a long time and drove a wedge between us for a while. My kid’s brain didn’t recognize the humorous disparity, the back handed slap between “you’re so beautiful” and “you look so different.” I was used to Sue in jeans and a scarf covering her hair as she worked around the house, which was a completely separate thought from how beautiful I always thought she was. But on the heels of all the razzing, egged on by Sue’s own sister my age who had also been there at their apartment that weekend, I finally understood my brother’s outrage at my comments when he revealed this homage to the love of his life. Boy, did I feel like a jerk.
It was also the first time I learned to think about how what I said would be perceived by the listener and to take ownership of it. With just a little effort, I could become an accomplished diplomat. Think about who is listening and how your words will be perceived, and take into consideration their circumstances. And as a result, in my life I have been accused very few times of ever causing offense.
I also recognize in my age that there are some people who are not gifted in this type of thinking. They’re not stupid, but it’s a challenge for them to speak with insight regarding their audience, and so the burden of not taking offense with them is always on the listener. In most cases we can hope the listener knows the good heart of the speaker and will make exception. But often enough the listener is not so well acquainted and does take offense at blurted statements that lack tact. So the speaker adopts the attitude that they can’t say anything, that everyone is too sensitive! And then they’re joined in this opinion by those jerks who are smart enough but too lazy or self-absorbed to be kind.
So the need for political correctness is because of these people, just like penicillin is for those too challenged or selfish to prevent the spread of gonorrhea. I don’t particularly subscribe to political correctness, especially as humor is so often politically INcorrect, but I know how to not thoughtlessly tread on the toes of others. It comes back down to one concept: do unto others as you would have them do to you. Take a moment to put yourself in your listener’s shoes and choose your words so as to not offend. It’s possible you will gain a friend and be viewed with a bigger heart and intellect. And who can’t use that?