Several years ago, my mom went to work for a major hotel chain at the front desk. She was nervous about learning their computer system, despite repeated assurances it was “super-easy” and “fool-proof.” My mom was convinced she’d push the one button that would bring the entire system down.
“Can’t happen,” her supervisor said. “No such button. Besides, you’ll learn on the training system. Even if there were such a button, all you’d do is bring down the training modules.”
Which she did, first day on the job. She found the magic button, or combination of buttons, that crashed the entire system. No one could train for several days while they scrambled to fix it.
Of course, it wasn’t her fault. There never should have been such a possibility, and in the long run, she did them a big favor, as the same problem existed on the “real” system. But she didn’t feel very good about it.
She got over it. My dad was a computer programmer for IBM, and we all learned that in these situations, the real problem is the programming. “Don’t yell at the computer, it’s only doing what it’s told to do” is a mantra we memorized early on. So instead I curse the unknown programmers.
The more complex the program, the greater the possibility of some unseen problem, some bizarre calculation that’s going to cause things to go haywire.
The same is true in human communication. We each grow up understanding the world in a way unique to ourselves, a combination of our personality, education and environment. The way I phrase a sentence could mean one thing to you, and something else entirely to another individual.
Political candidates learn early on how carefully they must phrase every thought, or they risk the anger and mockery of their constituents — and the rest of the world. What’s humorous in their circles while incense others, and not because they’re saying anything inappropriate. It’s simply understood in a different manner.
Several years ago I was a reporter for a weekly newspaper, covering a city council meeting. They were debating what to do with non-domesticated pets after one man’s pet tiger, Hank, escaped and prowled around the neighborhood before being recaptured. The idea of grandfathering in any such pets was briefly considered.
“Why not?” Councilman Y asked another. “It’s not like there are more tigers out there.”
“Well, we don’t know what’s out there,” Councilman Z replied. “Someone could have a contraband ferret in their basement.” At the time, domesticated ferrets were unheard of in that part of the country.
I included the comment in my story, saying “in a lighter moment, councilman Z joked…” My editor thought it was a good addition to the story, and she was a pretty shrewd judge of what would and wouldn’t work.
It didn’t work, at least not for some people. Apparently, a handful of vocal individuals in the community didn’t agree with Councilman Z’s sense of humor, and his tenure as councilman was threatened. He caused multiple problems for me and my editor after that, problems that landed him in court for holding public meetings in private to try to control the press (me). All for a lightweight comment I included with nothing but good intent. A sensible comment, at that.
You can’t always know what button will crash a system, or what comment will bring down a career. All you can do is live with integrity, and trust others will know who you are despite the one inadvertent, errant move.
And perhaps, in the long run, you’ll have a great story.
Image Credits: (crashed computer) © littlestocker — Adobe Stock; (girl with newspaper) © GraphicStock; (Tiger) courtesy of Pixabay