Don't Talk Trash. Communicate.
As a young designer, my first “real” job was for an NBC affiliate in San Antonio, TX. I was a broadcast designer, a fancy name for someone who creates graphics for a news show. It was an excellent first job with some serious drawbacks.
News is a 24-hour gig; you can choose early, late, or overnight shifts. I had the early shift and was the designer for the morning shows that began at 5:30 am. Therefore, my shift was 3:30 am to 11:30 am.
Regardless of hours, the job is the same across the shifts. The designer shows up, gets a printout of the show run down and the content of the news program, and then meets with the show’s producers. The producer discusses what they want to be made, and then we make it and send it to the Technical Director to place in the show.
News is inherently stressful; however, the morning side was a bit more chill than the evening, with rarely any breaking news and many recaps from the night before. The hard part of the morning was the hours. Technically speaking, the morning side should leave the building at 11:30. In reality, however, we would regularly be seen leaving at 1 or 2 pm. Changing shifts in the middle of the workday means the 8-5 folks have no sympathy, are ready to work, and do not consider that while they were sleeping soundly, we were brushing our teeth and getting dressed at 2:30 am. It’s neither right nor wrong; it is just the reality of the position.
With those hours, everyone on the morning shift was sleep deprived. Getting off work at 2 pm and needing to go to bed by 7 or 8 pm is a great idea, but it takes work. Many of us would go home, nap, stay with our families until 9 or 10 pm, and then get up at 2:30 am to work. We were split, shifting our sleep. Not a wise choice and an ultimately ineffective way to rest.
We were cranky, disheveled, and had an attitude. Our jokes were lame, and our manners were often lacking. Our clothing was one step from pajamas, and our grooming met the bare minimum standards. This resulted from a lack of sleep and contact with the everyday working world. This general state of being often put us at odds with the daytime and evening staff, even beyond the lack of consideration of our hours, and created this us versus them mentality.
The target of our ire was often the engineering department. This department, along with IT, kept us up and running and was essential to our success. We didn’t get along, however. They seemed overly picky and resistant to our service requests. We would joke that those departments were made up of exceedingly introverted folks that preferred machines to people. The net outcome was two groups acting like children.
Trash-talking in the newsroom is a typical, expected, and fantastic way to relieve the stress of tight deadlines and the daily trauma of reporting the worst in the world. At best, it was light-hearted, and at worst, it could devolve into personal insults and gossip. One morning at 4 am, I stood before my producer and engaged in the not-nice trash-talking. One of the engineers had upset me repeatedly, and I was letting loose about it while writing on my run-down sheet. I looked up and saw my producer’s face was whiter than usual, and I knew it could only mean one thing: the engineer was behind me.
My stomach dropped, and I wanted to run from the room. I was caught being a jerk and saying stupid things out of fatigue and anger. I did the only thing I could and turned and faced him. I opened my mouth to speak, but what would I say? He looked me up and down and walked away. I was humiliated and upset and deserved every ounce of it. I returned to the graphics office and took the opportunity to think about my actions.
I was sufficiently ashamed of my behavior to take a stand against myself. I swore never to talk trash again. I promised that if I had a problem with someone, I would address it with them, even if I had to look like a fool.
Fast forward 17 years to the present, where I have had quite a bit of success in this oath, and here is how I have done it.
1. I have broken down several times and let the smack fly. When that happens, I follow it up with a conversation with the person I am upset with as soon as possible, including admitting that I talked about them.
2. When I am in a group, and it’s time to talk trash, I will excuse myself, and if I can’t get away, I do my best not to engage or stand and shake my head or do nothing.
3. When I have been with people who have power over me that are saying bad things about others, I will either muster the courage to disagree or leave the situation and come back later and say, hey, so that you know, I’m afraid I have to disagree with your assessment of ______________.
4. When I find myself repeatedly giving in to the urge to talk trash about the same person or situation, I take it as a strong indication that I need to change my situation, act on my behalf, or both. This usually involves trying to resolve the issue and leaving the job or relationship if unsuccessful.
5. Finally, I have learned to recognize that the need to talk trash instead of communicating means I feel powerless. (No human has ever done well in that mental or physical state in the history of humans.) Once I come to that conclusion, it’s time, as in number 4, to take immediate action.
This list is not exhaustive regarding the ways to avoid talking trash, and I, as I have mentioned not been 100% successful. I am a messy human with many emotions that do not always behave well. However, I have come far from that day in the newsroom and have benefited from all the conversations I chose to have instead of talking trash. They haven’t all turned out well, and I didn’t always get the reaction I was hoping for. But I did learn; I did speak my truth and, in most cases, learned the other person’s truth.
What do you do when confronted with anger at another? Do you talk trash, or do you communicate?
P.S. In the case of the 4 am engineer, I found the courage to apologize to him. Although that conversation did not go well, we did a better job afterward of communicating with each other. We even ate lunch together a few times.