In my 20 years as a performer, I did everything from singing to stand-up comedy. Stage manager to costume designer. Choreographer to chorus dancer. Producer to production manager. I’ve done my time on the boards.
I loved it all, really. It’s hard work and much longer hours than anyone might suspect. But it was a very satisfying experience of friendship, teamwork and enhanced collaboration. It’s surprising, as well, the diplomatic skills one can develop simply by navigating a series of artistic temperaments.
Most notable was my time doing stand-up comedy for six months on a cruise ship. I was also the emcee for all the shows and the lead male vocalist in the stage productions. Beach every day, stage every night. Rinse and repeat. Fun, but exhausting.
It was the stand-up comedy part of that gig, however, where I really learned to rely upon what I was getting from a room to determine what I was going to say next and, more specifically, how. It’s an instinct you learn to use very quickly. Or not. It’s called “reading the room.” Stand-up comedy is not the only profession in which the skill is useful. But it’s the one where I learned it.
Comedy was a particularly good platform for developing both language and diplomacy. Communicating an idea effectively requires a deliberate use of the correct words so the listener adequately receives the information. One can very rudely tell a joke by being insensitive and go over the line even for those most familiar with profane humor. You always know the minute you’ve stepped in it. I received some particularly ugly commentary for having written a parody of the Canadian national anthem. For a cruise ship full of Canadian tourists, I might add. Live and learn.
But one does get a sense of what’s effective to a goal and what’s not. If my point was to upset people, then I could’ve stuck to my guns on that song, but I would’ve lost a job. I would’ve also missed the point about why people might be angry about it in the first place. Their point was valid, and I was being disrespectful.
For my column last Saturday, I was able to make a last-minute correction before deadline. I had submitted it early last week, but then I noticed in my reread of it on Thursday that I had twice used the word “fireman.”
That might not seem like much of a big deal. What’s wrong with the term fireman? Except we are in a time when we’re trying to be more thoughtful about the words we use and the implications they have. The word fireman excludes all those who don’t happen to be men yet still bravely fight fires. It also sends a subconscious message that women shouldn’t do the job.
Some will likely scoff at this, feeling their right of free speech has been sufficiently impinged upon already. Be that as it may, it’s always in everyone’s best interest to be able to read the room. And right now, issues like this have been deemed important by a large enough segment of our society that all of us, agreeable to it or not, should take note.
I changed the word “fireman” to “firefighter” in my column. Not so much because all that many people would complain about my inadvertent use of an unnecessarily gendered word. Most people wouldn’t likely notice it today, incorrect though it may be. But history will. Maybe not my words specifically, but history will remember this difficult shift toward inclusive language and, at least in general, those who helped usher it forward.
Learn to read the room. Notice things that are said by many, and wonder about them. This is true no matter what side of an argument you’re on. If nearly half of the population wants something, there is something to be learned from it. That might not mean changing your opinion about what you think is important. But it will definitely help you learn how to make your case better. Listening is the key.
Isn’t that really the point, to be effective? If you want a new state law, you don’t go screaming into the Statehouse to make it happen. You use your words effectively and efficiently. You speak to those in power using their own terminology and processes. You learn how to navigate a pre-existing system so that you may then nudge it into becoming what you want. That’s diplomacy. That’s reading the room.
Someone told me not so long ago that both sides of an argument will repeat their case over and over and over again to anyone who will hear it. It’s always the more inclusive ideas that manage to rise to the surface over time. There is a visible sociological pattern to it, but it’s only in the long view. Stand back and observe that trend. Consider how it might apply to you and how you speak about and treat other people today.
When people look back on this time in history, what will they think of your words and actions toward other people? Will they view them as having been on the right side of history, or will they be able to look back and see the footprints of a dinosaur en route to extinction?
These points matter today, because they inform how well we get along with other people in this age of shifting language and increasing gender and racial equity. We are becoming a more loving society, whether everyone likes it or not. We are using different words today to describe our desires than we did not so long ago. Does it feel like a bad thing because it’s simply inconvenient, or because it is socially destructive?
We have begun to give greater social voice to those who have not had one in the past. That we don’t always now enjoy hearing what they have to say is irrelevant. These are things that must be said and heard. We are the set of generations whose task it is to be a witness to it. Read the room.It’s hard. Some aspects of our modernizing world make us scratch our head and wonder how they come up with each new politically correct term. We use examples of how we survived decades without wearing seat belts or bike helmets. Except for those of us who did not. And they are not here anymore to say how good an idea a seat belt or a bike helmet might’ve been for them. But history remembers.
Look around you in society and consider what you might do to help close the divide among us. Take note of those whose actions and words sound more like a bully than a teacher. Listen to both of them, but follow the example of the one who is more loving. For that is what you can read in the largest of print among the room of humanity right now.
Wil Darcangelo, M.Div., is the minister at First Parish UU Church of Fitchburg and of First Church of Christ Unitarian in Lancaster, and producer of The UU Virtual Church of Fitchburg and Lancaster on YouTube. Email email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter @wildarcangelo. His blog, Hopeful Thinking, can be found at www.hopefulthinkingworld.blogspot.com.