GETTING MORE TALE #557: Just Joking
Ever heard a joke that made you almost too uncomfortable to laugh?
In my second year of university, I was in a history class and one of the students missed a previous lesson. He asked if he could borrow some notes, so my friend Tim offered. “Thanks!” he responded, and then added jokingly, “Hey, who says white people never help out black people?” Yes, he was black, and Tim and I were white. We laughed, but a part of us felt like laughing at that joke was taboo. It clearly wasn’t, he was obviously just kidding, but it hit that grey area of discomfort.
Here is an example from the Record Store. One of our regular customers named himself “Richard the Indian”. Super nice guy, usually easy to deal with. Loved heavy metal. He had a native status card proving he’s indigenous and entitling him to a tax discount, but he also absolutely looked it. He had long straight black hair, and wizened eyes. Even though he referred to himself as “Richard the Indian”, I didn’t like calling him that to his face. It didn’t seem “right” to me. So, he was usually just addressed as “Richard”.
He listened to his music on a CD Discman. He was always have problems with it, and I saw pieces falling off it once. It was “a piece of junk”, according to him. “This thing must have been made by Indians!” he joked, playing on the stereotype that all Indians are drunk and lazy.
Do you laugh? I let out a slight uncomfortable chuckle. Some of the staff felt uncomfortable too. “I know he’s just kidding, but it makes me feel weird when he makes Indian jokes,” someone told me. “I feel like I should laugh, but also shouldn’t.”
The ins and outs of retail are labyrinthine. There have been jokes that flat-out were not funny. One guy thought he was hilarious with this joke: Q: What does Marvin Gaye have in common with one of his records? A: They’re both black and have a hole in the middle. That joke got no laughs because it wasn’t funny at all. In other situations, I have laughed and then realized too late that the customer wasn’t joking.
So what do you do? If you work in retail, when in doubt, don’t laugh. Do not. At worst you’ll appear humourless, at best you’ll avoid the wrong reaction!