Must You Condemn Inappropriate Audience Comments?

A few years ago, I was hired to deliver a media training workshop to a group of executives for a mid-sized, privately-held company. Most of the people in the session were men, some of whom proceeded to make rather politically incorrect “jokes” about women (two of whom were in the room).

I faced a choice: denounce their language or move on. I knew what I wanted to do, but I also knew that if I criticized them, it could put a damper on the session and diminish my effectiveness as a professional who was hired to help them.

I opted for a path in the middle—one which made my point without embarrassing anyone too much. After one of the men made yet another inappropriate joke, I said (while smiling), “Okay, men. When this media training is over, I think we’re going to need to schedule a sensitivity training.” They laughed, but my comment succeeded in (mostly) stopping their comments for the rest of the day.

That raises a question: If you’re giving a presentation and someone in your audience says something inappropriate, do you have an obligation to address it—or will the audience be more comfortable if you just keep moving ahead?

Man With Tape on Mouth

According to The Washington Post, NYC mayoral candidate Anthony Weiner faced such a decision last week. Here’s their account of his exchange with an elderly voter he encountered on the campaign trail:

“You a registered Democrat?” he asked an elderly woman wheeling a shopping cart by him.

“I am,” she said. “And I’m not voting for uh, what’s her name? The dyke.”

“Okay. I just need you to sign the petition to get me on the ballot,” said Weiner, who then noticed the incredulous reaction of a reporter and added, “and you really shouldn’t talk that way about people.”

“Oh, I’m sorry,” the woman said.

It’s okay,” Weiner responded. “It’s not your fault.”

Weiner only reacted when he noticed the reporter’s reaction—and when he did, he offered the most mild of condemnations. As a result, he comes off looking like a man who’s willing to do, say, or forgive any indiscretion from a potential voter, as long as he still gets their vote.

In contrast, Senator John McCain (R-AZ) corrected a woman during his 2008 presidential run who accused his opponent, Senator Barack Obama, of being an “Arab.” Mr. McCain could have let it slide—that type of rhetoric was popular with many people in his base—but he didn’t.

Given the choice, I’ll err more on McCain’s side in the future. I’ll try to do it with grace and without ever being gratuitous. But as the Australian army chief I profiled on the blog last week said brilliantly, “The standard you walk past is the standard you accept.”

What do you think? Have you ever faced a similar dilemma? Please leave your thoughts and experiences in the comments section below.