It was a joke, though.
I’m at the gym, gliding along on the elliptical with my brain set in writerly mode, looking around and observing people. That guy on the treadmill in front of me, could he be a Marine? Oh look, there’s my friend from church, the one who speaks with a lilting accent, I must try to remember where she’s from, is it Panama? And behind me, a man with a booming voice is having a jokey conversation with a friend as they walk along the main corridor.
I miss most of the conversation, but when the man says “I’ll fire her!” in his booming voice and he and his friend burst out laughing, I swivel my torso around to get a look at him. It’s an awkward swivel if you’re on the elliptical, and what do I gain from it? Nothing, only This is what two businessmen sharing a laugh together look like, this is what the man with a booming voice looks like. He is a rather slight fellow with a mustache, as it turns out. His build doesn’t match his voice at all.
I pedal on and forget about him until a few minutes later, when he suddenly appears at my elbow, lightly touching it. At first, I don’t recognize him.
Excuse me ma’am, just want to make sure you know I was kidding.
Kidding about what? And who is this guy? I wonder.
You know, when I said that about firing my employee.
Oh, that guy. I didn’t hear the whole conversation, I say. I was just being nosy, pay no mind, I don’t say.
Well, I was telling my friend my Chinese employee beat me at ping pong. She beat the pants off me, actually. But I wouldn’t fire her anyway, she’s the best employee I’ve got.
Oh, I say. I laugh a little, and he is gone. It takes me a moment to figure out that when he boomed I’ll fire her!, he was referring to her thrashing him at ping pong. Now the joke makes sense.
But his behavior astonishes me. After reflecting on his words, he came all the way back across the room to the woman who had turned around on the treadmill to listen to him–me. To explain himself. As though he had to. To me, a nosy nobody.
Did he think, Who is that woman who swiveled around to look at me, could she be a friend of my employee’s who will tell her about the conversation?
But even if that were the case, the employee would surely get the joke. That she might worry her boss would really fire her because she beat him at ping pong doesn’t seem like a realistic possibility to me. I’m sure they joked about it at the time, especially given his jovial, outgoing personality.
What else, then?
He wants to make absolutely sure nobody ever thinks he would fire his Chinese employee for beating him at ping pong. Not even the nosy lady on the elliptical whom he’ll probably never see again–nobody.
Because you possibly could, if you were particularly obtuse, interpret his joke as a racist or sexist remark. And racist and sexist are about the two scariest epithets you can hurl at someone these days.
I want to run after him and shout, Wait, it’s a joke, I get it! I want to shout, It’s none of my business anyway! I want to shout, Even if you meant it literally, don’t apologize, you have freedom of speech!
But it’s too late, he’s gone, leaving me wondering, as I pedal on, about freedom of speech and what it means. Doesn’t it mean some people have a right to express their racist, sexist opinions, even if they are highly offensive to other people? If the offenders aren’t at the workplace, where their comments have a direct effect on the people who work with them, the answer is yes. We have the right. But what good is it if we’re afraid to use it?
This guy was not only not offensive, he was so worried about being perceived that way that he felt he had to explain himself, to protect himself. Presumably against the possible pc patrol on the elliptical.
And if we feel we have to police ourselves from people at the gym, how free are we?