You’re Always On Stage

You’ve probably heard of someone whose private remarks impacted their professional life.

We could be talking about an (ex) NBA owner, a speculative fiction editor (or writer), or an (ex) teacher who writes erotic poetry under a pen name.

And the stories can be terrifying. One acquaintance described it as “always being on stage”, implying that we never, ever get a minute to relax and not triple-think what we’re saying.

This is a huge, important question.

Where does the separation between our personal and public lives occur? What impact should our private statements or activities have on our public or professional lives? Does it matter what job you have or hold?

Due to my respect policy, this isn’t an academic question for me.  So I thought about what goes into it for me.  Where do I draw the line when I’m thinking about when and how something should be considered … well, wrong.

I came up with five big considerations.

Is it satire or art:  Perhaps the toughest of them, it’s also the most important.  As a general rule of thumb, I look at whether or not it’s punching down or not.

Contextualization: For whom was the action or statement intended? What was going on? Things you’d say when playing Cards Against Humanity would probably not be appropriate in a classroom setting… but they would be during the game.  Things you’d say to your lover wouldn’t be right for a child… or vice versa.

On The Record: Was this something intended to be public? This isn’t a free pass by just saying “it was meant to be private” – see below – but we all talk differently depending on whom we’re speaking to. I can make off-color jokes with my amour that I’d never say to a customer. Heck, I don’t even talk about politics with customers at my day job.

Reaction When Called On It: Is there an apology? (More good examples here and here.)Doubling down? Or attempts to make the evidence of the act disappear?

Harm To Others: Was this something that will impact others, especially in their line of business? A businessperson with mostly black employees being heard saying some really racist stuff? Yeah, that’s a problem. A politician running for president and showing condescension toward those poorer than him? Yeah, doesn’t really matter that it was “intended” for a small group of people – that’s going to impact policy decisions. An editor saying they’d reject out of hand anyone who disagreed with him on the interwebs? Also problematic. Given problems with harassment at conventions, I’d even go so far as to say that labeling oneself a “Men’s Rights Advocate” could be a big red flag.

The reason why we want to look at all of these factors is simple: I am first concerned about behavior. If someone is a bigot but I can never tell by their actions, does it particularly matter what goes on inside their heads?  (Short answer:  No.  I have research on this.)

And that’s why I think the “on stage” metaphor is particularly apt – but not in the way that my acquaintance meant it. When you’re watching a play, you have only two things to let you know what a character is thinking: What they do, and what they say1. Through those two channels, the audience not only knows what they’re thinking – but can understand what’s coming next.

While the size of the audience – thanks to the internet, social media, and the like – the audience has grown vast, and our words and actions may give a meaning we never intended when moved to a different context.

Just like in a play, we can’t read each other’s minds, or hear interior monologues.  But we can hear your tone of voice, we can see the context in which something was said, we can see if it was meant for everyone at large, we can see how you react when called on it, and we can assess the impact it will have on others.

By focusing on things that have an impact – or signal a future impact – then we can get rid of the false argument of “thought police” and start working to teach each other the language of diversity and start to actually make the world a little bit better of a place.

1 I’m including non-verbal communication here as well.