Each morning I say a prayer that comes from the church’s Divine Office, which is the official set of prayers that mark the hours of the day and sanctify them. The Office is also referred to as the Liturgy of the Hours, the Work of God (Opus Dei), the canonical hours, and the Breviary. Part of the morning prayer says: “Curb Thou for us the unruly tongue. Teach us way of peace to prize, and close our eyes against the throng of Earth’s absorbing vanities.”
Curbing the “unruly tongue” has been one of the most difficult things for me to do, as it is for most of us (see Loose Lips Sink Ships). It is the work of a lifetime. The only reason I can exercise a modicum of restraint today is the memory of the countless times over the years when I did not curb my tongue and paid dearly for it. You might say I paid through the nose, to continue the head metaphor. In fact, I’m still paying commissions on some of them.
I did it again this week at a marketing meeting. A woman told us about her husband’s new tech company, complaining about his “soft launch.” She asked our opinion. I said, “Sorry, I can’t help you. I’ve never had that problem.” I am at my best at moments like these that combine feigned innocence with deadpan humor and sexual innuendo. Unfortunately, not everyone appreciates the humor or innuendo, as I have discovered. Still, people deserve an unruly tongue from time to time. They take themselves too seriously. So, I consider myself doing a service to humanity, at least during the lighter moments. The problem is that the unruliness doesn’t exactly jibe with the intention of my morning prayer. You see the conundrum.
The larger issue concerns humor and the thread that separates wit from sarcasm’s tearing of the flesh (sarkasmos). For instance, it is one thing to make fun of business jargon and how the obsession with competitive advantage makes people do silly things (I recall the story of an author who dressed up like a pickle to get an agent), but quite another to disrespect people or their work, even unintentionally. And isn’t most of the harm done unintentionally? That certainly has been true for me, resulting in more paying through the nose (see In Defense of Smirking).
Something else to consider is that when quips like “soft launch” occur during hard times, “results may vary,” as the product disclaimer reads, which means you never know how people will react. Everyone seems to be on edge right now, at least in my world (vaccine, anyone?). It is important to recognize that much if not all of this is self-imposed like the pickle costume. That may not be true for people who deliver packages, process mail, wait tables, ring up groceries, staff counters, handle baggage, or drive buses. If they dress up, it’s because they’re being paid to do it. So humor, too, is class based.
This week, I heard a presenter claim that you can say just about anything if you do it with love. The context in which she said this was leadership and management at the C-Suite and board levels. I suppose that’s true, especially if you have to say something unpleasant to someone. This conditional sort of business love is probably justified. In nearly every other context, love demands that you keep your comments about a soft launch to yourself. It’s also one of the best ways not to be on the receiving end of an unpleasant conversation.
My morning prayer includes this: “May our hearts be pure within. No cherished madness vex the soul. May abstinence the flesh restrain and its rebellious pride control.” If you don’t have a cherished madness, it will be easier to keep the quips and innuendos to a minimum. It’s also a good idea, like the oft’quoted advice regarding letters and email, to write them and then put them away in a desk drawer or folder. You will be relieved later on when you look at them again and shake your head over the genital jokes. Time, hard or otherwise, has a way of making us wiser.
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