I have friend who is very charismatic. He makes up catch phrases and says them in a way people enjoy and associate with him. One of them, which he used as a greeting, was “Word word word.” As in, you’d be at a bar and he’d show up and greet everyone with a big “Word word word!” It didn’t mean much more than he felt friendly. At least as far as I knew. I’d never heard anyone say anything like it.
Sometimes I’d say it to friends in other circles, not thinking much of it.
I should mention that this friend is white. I didn’t think anything of his skin color when he said it, but it matters later.
Around the time he said “word word word” a lot, I started business school. When you start business school, everyone meets a lot of people quickly and you go to a lot of networking events, which is code for bars. One guy I happened to meet was black. We joked around a few times and seemed to be headed toward friendship.
At one networking event I saw him standing at the bar. I walked up with a big, friendly “Word word word!”
He turned and said, “You don’t have to act ethnic just to talk to me.”
My mind raced with thoughts of what just happened: what did ethnicity have to do with anything? What acting? What was he talking about?
I think it took less than a second, but I concluded that saying “word” must be something people expect black but not white people to say and that he assumed I said it to sound black to him or something like that.
I considered my options. I couldn’t see how to explain I was emulating my friend and that my friend was white and that I didn’t realize I was saying something black, or however to put it, without sounding defensive or confusing. Nothing I could think of saying sounded better.
I walked away without explaining myself, avoiding risking making things sound worse.
As far as I remember, he and I never spoke again.
I don’t know if there’s a lesson in the story. Just a weird outcome of innocence and assumption.
Read my weekly newsletter
Subscribe for a weekly update of musings on leadership, the environment, and burpees.