“But that’s not how I meant it!”

Some weeks ago I wrote of the Dunning-Kruger effect, which essentially describes the tendency of the less intelligent to believe their opinions are fact even in light of evidence to the contrary – essentially, to give themselves too much credit – and the tendency of the more intelligent to believe that everyone else understands the things they understand – essentially, giving others too much credit. Then last week a friend of mine told a story of something that happened at his place of employment that is a wonderful demonstration of Dunning-Kruger.

A White male co-worker of my friend’s, who we’ll call Roderick, happened upon two other coworkers – a White male we’ll call Ferdinand who works in the same department as Roderick, and a Black female we’ll call Zelda who works in a different department – who were having a conversation. Roderick said to Ferdinand, “Hey, you shouldn’t be fraternizing with the help!” He then made a rather insensitive remark about them both being single, given that Ferdinand just went through a painful divorce that he didn’t want. Zelda wasn’t particularly offended by Roderick’s remark, but she recognized that others – especially the customers of their company – might take great offense at Roderick’s remark and so she mentioned it to a supervisor that they might want to speak with Roderick about diversity and sensitivity. What Zelda didn’t know is that Roderick had made a flippant remark to another coworker in the past who had taken offense and did file a complaint.

When confronted about what he said, Roderick’s response was that since he didn’t mean any offense by what he said it wasn’t appropriate for others to take offense at what he had said. Dunning Kruger strikes again.

You see, if we push that example just a bit we can see how fallacious it is. If, for example, I call someone an asshole but don’t really mean anything bad by it because I like assholes I don’t think that explanation is going to hold much water with the person I have just identified as a sphincter. Similarly, if I call someone a douche bag it doesn’t matter how much I like vinegar because that person is going to be offended. While these examples are admittedly extreme, I raise them because it’s important to start with the obvious.

In any conversation it is the responsibility of the speaker to make sure s/he is understood. I do a fair amount of public speaking and have learned that I need to choose the examples and metaphors I use to illustrate the points I am trying to make with an eye toward my audience and their life experience. If I am speaking to a group of heavy equipment operators then I am safe using construction metaphors, but to a group of health care workers I’d be better using medical metaphors. If I use examples that my audience is not likely to understand I have nobody to blame but myself. Similarly, if I am having a conversation with my wife and she misinterprets what I say it is most definitely in my best interest to restate my case rather than call her an idiot!

When our kids were teenagers we had a foster daughter who decided it would be a good idea to go to the local roller rink and shout, “What up, my niggas?” She certainly didn’t mean anything bad by what she said, but she quickly discovered that White girls should say that to Black folk they don’t know well. I wonder if Roderick would say something that overt in a similar setting. I suspect not, but I could very well be wrong.

The truth is that there are subtle, racist messages that people in their forties and fifties heard used regularly in their homes as children that we heard used so often it may not even occur to us that certain statements have a racist undertone – but it is our responsibility to develop empathy and evaluate the things we say before we say them! The truth is that even if all of the participants in the conversation were from the same ethnic group Roderick’s remarks would still have been insensitive because of the difference in his job description and Zelda’s.

There is something here for those of us who are a bit more intelligent to learn from Dunning-Kruger’s research. Our tendency would be to assume that Roderick fully understood that his comment was offensive and just didn’t care. In our world of political correctness, we tend to assume that everybody understands what is and is not appropriate to say based on, at most, a single sensitivity training. If our goal is truly to improve interpersonal relationships in every context, then we obviously need to have ongoing empathy, compassion, and sensitivity training – not just formally, but informally. It may be that the latter is more important than the former. We need to have ongoing conversations on all levels of society about how to respond to one another on a very human level, to value and cultivate compassion and mutual understanding. You might say the future of the planet depends on it.

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