In the back room of the Museum of Comparative Zoology Library, where I worked with several other librarians right after I graduated from college, there was a small whiteboard, a couple of feet wide and not quite so tall, which hung on the wall over the coffee station. It was probably put there originally for people to make note of important news and appointments, but it was never used for that. Instead, people would share pithy aphorisms and meaningful quotations for their own (and, putatively, everyone else’s) amusement or enlightenment, erasing an old line and adding a new one every couple of days.
As you might expect, librarians are a bookish crowd, so often these quotes were literary. Also, some of the folks I worked with were slightly broody, so Rilke and Keats were overrepresented. For several months I did not dare contribute anything to the board. I felt I couldn’t compete.
One day, though, I was listening to my Walkman on the way into work. This was in the ’80s — for those of you who missed that decade, a Walkman was a portable music device, like an iPod Nano, only 100 times bigger with 1/100th the capacity. I was enjoying the soundtrack to the movie The Blues Brothers, in particular the title characters’ version of the theme from the TV series Rawhide. It’s a deep, gravelly song about herding cattle, and one line — “Don’t try to understand ’em, just rope and throw and brand ’em” — struck me that morning as particularly silly. As if cowboys were into bestial psychoanalysis! So, seeing the line as a jovial antidote to some of the portentous quotations we usually saw, I decided to add it to the whiteboard as soon as I arrived at work.
The whole day went by with absolutely no apparent reaction to my contribution. No one laughed or chuckled or rolled their eyes or even, as far as I could tell, noticed. By the end of the day I was feeling halfway to humiliated by my complete failure of a quote, and I couldn’t take it any longer. As nonchalantly as I could, I asked my co-worker Ed, a gentle, quiet man, if he had noticed the quite I’d added.
He said he did, but he did not like it.
Cringing and confused, I asked him why.
He said, “I just don’t think you should talk about women that way.”
I was gobsmacked. “‘Women’? The quote’s not about women. It’s about cows! Rope, throw, brand?”
“Oh.” Ed took a sip of his coffee. “Then I guess it’s okay.”
I learned three things that day. First: Ed had never seen The Blues Brothers.
Second: Ed must have had a distressingly malleable opinion of me to begin with, for him to run with the assumption that I was promoting domination and bondage in the office. That was an unpleasant surprise, but a useful lesson. Often our co-workers really don’t know us that well.
Third: No matter how blindingly obvious your meaning seems to you, you have no control over the baggage that other people will attach to your words. I thought roping and branding were about as explicitly steer-related as you could get, but if your audience is constantly on the lookout for misogyny, it might make different assumptions. Completely unwarranted assumptions — but note that if I hadn’t asked Ed what he’d thought, he would have gone the rest of his life thinking of me as a sexist sadist. At work, you have to do more than just choose your words carefully. You need to follow up with your audiences — your colleagues, your bosses, your customers, everyone — to make sure that your intended message was the one they received. Don’t try to figure out what they think of your communication — ask them.