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Huckleberry Finn Goes to Sensitivity Training

May 20, 2014


I’m a quiet guy, and I usually keep to myself, but even I slip up every once in a while. I’m not Huckleberry Finn, by the way. I’m Jimmy. I’ll get to Huck Finn in a few paragraphs.

Last week at work, a group of younger employees in my department was talking loudly about a professional football player who lives an alternative lifestyle, and they spoke of him very loudly in a derogatory way. Normally, I would have kept quiet, but these guys were talking loudly, and the stuff one guy was saying was so bad I won’t even write his words in my blog. I don’t want to be associated with those words.

But instead of keeping to myself like I usually do, I said:

“You might not want to say things like that while you’re at work.”

Those were my exact words. I know those were my exact words because I rarely interject myself into other peoples’ conversations. I’ll eavesdrop, but I usually stay out of the discussions.

The worst offender of the bunch sneered at me and said, “Lighten up.”

I took this as an insult. I had spoken to the obnoxious guy in in a respectful manner and he had in turn told me to lighten up when he was the one causing a scene. That type of arrogance rubbed me the wrong way.

I’m not the kind of person who can think of good spontaneous retorts, so I said (with an unusual amount of inflection in my voice), “You want ME… to lighten up?”

The entire section of cubicles turned silent, and I could feel others staring at us. I’m not known for causing a scene and didn’t think I had said anything that bad. It was probably the way I said it, I thought. I found out later that they thought I had implied something offensive, but my co-workers couldn’t agree about what I’d meant. Some thought I was referring to the loud guy’s weight because he is much broader than I am. Others thought I was referring to his skin color because his skin is much darker than mine. I thought all of this was unfair. I had used the phrase “lighten up” because the loud co-worker had used it first, and he had been the one who was uptight.

As the day progressed, word got out that he made remarks about people of another lifestyle, and that I had said something offensive in response, though witnesses couldn’t agree about what I had meant. The company that I work for takes matters like this very seriously, so it was announced that in a few days, the entire department would have to attend a morning-long sensitivity training session. The sessions weren’t technically “sensitivity training,” but that’s what everybody called it. The company had a weird acronym that actually spelled out a word (in a misspelled way), but I don’t want to say what the acronym was because I don’t want this to get back to my company. Either way, I got a lot of dirty looks from people the rest of the day.

“Why are people blaming me for this?” I asked a mousey co-worker. I’d probably be called mousey too except I’m tall with broad shoulders, so I’m quiet and reserved instead of mousey.

“You told him to… lighten up,” she said, almost aghast.

“He said it to me first,” I said.

“It was the way you said it,” she explained. “We could tell you meant something different.”

I wondered, how? I have a monotone voice. People, including co-workers, make fun of my lack of inflection. I’m okay with that. I was puzzled, though, how I could have said something that could have been so misinterpreted.

I sighed. I guess I had to go to sensitivity training no matter what.

Nobody wanted to go to sensitivity training. It was punishing everybody for what a few people (including me, I guess) had done. It wouldn’t have been so bad if it had been only me and the three guys who were talking loudly about the alternative lifestyle football player, but a few dozen others had to go to sessions because of us. Even though I didn’t think I had done anything wrong, I felt guilty. I didn’t want my co-workers to think I was that kind of person.

It was an interesting role reversal. Since I was the oldest guy in my department, I think people expected me to be the one complaining about the behavior of football players who lived an alternative lifestyle. Instead, it was a young guy, and I thought young guys were supposed to be more tolerant of alternative lifestyles than middle-aged guys, but this young guy wasn’t. Even though I thought it was an interesting observation, I kept it to myself.

When we have morning sessions (they’ve never been about sensitivity training before), I usually take a book with me. I sometimes read on my phone, but my new phone eats up battery, so I grabbed my paperback copy of The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn by Mark Twain and went to my sensitivity training. I like Huckleberry Finn and Tom Sawyer. They’re tough kids. They grew up in rough environments and didn’t whine. They ran away from home, faked their own deaths, saved people’s lives, and helped out escaped slaves. And despite everything, they never resorted to stream-of-consciousness.

A lot of the attendees at sensitivity training were staring at their phones, which I thought was insensitive to the feelings of those presenting. At least I don’t read while others are presenting.

When my mousey co-worker saw me, her mouth hung open. “Why did you bring that book here?”

She wouldn’t even utter the title. It was simply… that book.

“It’s classic literature,” I said proudly. People think I’m smarter than I really am because I carry classic literature with me (and sometimes I actually read it).

“But it has… the word.”

I knew what she was talking about. Huck Finn uses the word that should never be uttered several times in the book, and since he’s the protagonist, some critics see his usage as an endorsement of the word that should never be uttered. In some books, the word that should never be uttered is used, but it’s used by villainous characters to make them even more evil, so it’s not as controversial. But Huck uses the word casually, so some critics find the usage of the word that should never be uttered offensive.

The thing is, I knew that The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn could be controversial and that it had been banned in the past (and maybe even the present) because of that word. I have no problem with a slightly abridged version without the word that should never be uttered, if that would lead to some readers who would otherwise not read the book to read the book. When I was a kid, I had an abridged version without the word, but a lot of other stuff was left out too, so it had been abridged for the sake of making it easier for kids to read. Sensitivity hadn’t had anything to do with it.

I didn’t want to get into an argument about The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn at a sensitivity training session. When it comes to sensitivity training, context doesn’t always matter.

“I’ll put it away,” I said, and turned the book over so that nobody could see the cover. I thought about pulling out my phone and staring at it. Instead, I propped my elbows on the table where I was sitting and leaned my forehead on my palms.

Despite my frustration, I got my act together within a few minutes. I was polite during sensitivity training. I nodded, even though I never paid attention. I ignored the co-workers who whispered lame jokes to each other while the sensitivity specialist pretended not to hear them. Since everybody was getting paid to be there, nobody acted out too much. I managed to step out to the restroom just before volunteers were selected for the role-playing activities. I have a talent for getting out of role-playing activities.

Today, I decided to discreetly ask a few co-workers about what had happened last week. One co-worker said that the only people who blamed me were the ones who agreed with the loud guy’s opinion about the alternative lifestyle football player. Another co-worker was disappointed that I hadn’t criticized the loud guy’s opinion of the football player.  He was also disappointed that I had only complained about him talking loudly about such things at work. A female co-worker said that she was giving me the benefit of the doubt about how I’d used the phrase “lighten up,” but she wasn’t sure about me because she was suspicious of everybody in my demographic group, that we could say the right things most of the time, but that she was never sure what we really thought or felt about her own demographic group. Even though I’m paraphrasing them, I hope I did justice to their opinions.

All of them thought the mousey co-worker was out of line for worrying about The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. They said it was probably the mousey girl’s fault that the whole sensitivity training happened at all. The mousey co-worker has a reputation of being too sensitive.

  1. I would hate for someone to judge me for reading Huck Finn…people need to understand it was written in a completely different time.

    • I can understand people being uncomfortable with the word that should not be uttered, but a person who is reading the book shouldn’t be judged negatively just for reading the book. Now if a middle-aged guy is reading Lolita… that’s different.

  2. Sensitivity and cultural awareness are good in principal but they can also be used as a weapon and a tool to silence people. This guys weight or skin colour can can be used to undermine public scrutiny of his homophobia. A hierarchy of “other” is being established and entrenched and is giving people on the high end of this food chain license to spout hatred and silence those who object. Even acknowledging this can make people uncomfortable. It sounds you had a bad experience. I find it really hard to shake off incidents like this.

    • The whole thing surprised everybody, I think, because our work environment is usually friendly and positive (as much as work environments can be). I also believe the loud guy got talked to in private by the powers that be because (that’s what the rumors say and) he has been really quiet since then. I haven’t been talked to in private by the powers that be. We’ll see what tomorrow brings.

  3. dreamfarming permalink

    I don’t know why bub I find the phrase demographic group funny. Maybe I find it funny because of my particular demographic group

    • dreamfarming permalink

      that is supposed to be but not bub.

      • The person who talked to me about demographic groups didn’t use the phrase “demographic group.” She was much more specific about the demographic groups she was talking about. I used the phrase “demographic group” in my post because I didn’t want any specific demographic group to be the issue. Whew! I hope that made sense. It’s getting late.

  4. I like your dry wit.

    Actually, I’ve always considered the workplace — however “friendly” — as a jungle where it’s best to keep your mouth shut. Until I retired, I used to have a yellow sticky on my computer and another inside the front drawer of my desk to remind me of just that. The stickies both said, KYMS (“keep your mouth shut,”).

  5. Anonymous permalink


  6. This is a spoof isn’t it? There aren’t really workplaces like the one you describe, or are there?

    • It does sound spoofish, now that you mention it. It might be because I kept a lot of the details vague. Nobody (except my wife) knows about this blog, and specific details about what happened might make it obvious (to some people) where I work, and my employer probably wouldn’t want me discussing this, so I have to give myself plausible deniability.

  7. I hope this didn’t really happen…if so, something has been seriously lost……..

  8. Wow, I never realized that “lighten up” could be construed so many ways.

  9. So weird how others can misconstrue what you say just because of the way you say it which wasn’t the way you meant to say it, or the way you look when you say it etc… I really liked your post and it made me laugh. Here in Australia, racial slurs don’t happen as easily as that. But there are other ways to misconstrue and it happens all the time at work. I despise pollitically motivated relationships but I’ve stopped sticking my nose into other people’s business. I hate conflict but I think that everyone else loves drama and pointing the finger, so to speak.Why can’t they just be happy?

  10. I hope that mousey coworker doesn’t enjoy any movies or shows with rating above G, because everything else will probably have some violent scenes, which would means that she approves the glorification of violence.

    • I need to pay attention to what books she reads. I’m sure she’s brought something to work that wouldn’t be appropriate for sensitivity training, but hopefully we’ll never need to do sensitivity training again.

  11. mkjwrites permalink

    Great post! I’m glad I came across it. Very funny, and it’s easy to relate with you. It’s so tricky to avoid saying something or doing something that will offend people. 🙂

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