It’s officially summer, and no food says summer to me like watermelon. Juicy, running down your forearm and chin, seed spitting contest enabling watermelon. It’s nature’s candy and children’s joy. Because of an unfortunate experience, it’s also a reminder to me that it is so important to be kind over clever.
The Lead Up
A few years ago, I had the privilege of attending a professional picnic that I was really excited for. Not only was it in the beautiful city of Napa, but it had a great guest list of business owners I respected. The attendees were a combination of people that I already liked and others that I didn’t know yet but admired from afar. I was eager to put my best foot forward.
I’m no bum in the kitchen, so I thought contributing a potluck dish that was delicious and a little different would be a good way for me to stand out. The winning recipe was a watermelon, tomato, and poppyseed salad I had made a few weeks earlier. I may sound like a crazy combination, but trust me when I say it’s delicious and refreshing! (The New York Times has a similar one.)
So, salad in hand, I drove three hours up to wine country, brimming with hope and excitement!
The Clever Words
The picnic was lovely and well attended. There was some murmuring when people got to my salad in the buffet line (“Watermelon and tomato? Huh. I’ll try it.”), but I was expecting that. I knew that once they tasted it, they would like it. In my imagination, they would ask who brought such an unusual and delicious dish, and I would have my moment in the sun.
Unfortunately, the day didn’t go as scripted.
Part way through the picnic, the host gathered us together so he could talk. Honestly, I don’t remember a lot of what he said. I’m sure some of it was welcoming and kind, but I’ve forgotten all but a few words. What I do remember is that the speaker wanted to share a joke he had just heard. Here it is:
“Knowledge is knowing that a tomato is a fruit. Wisdom is knowing not to put it in a fruit salad.”
I was mortified.
I wanted to escape, to be anywhere other than surrounded by people laughing at the supposed idiot (me) who thought it was a good idea to put tomatoes in a fruit salad. Maybe I forced a chuckle out and went along with it, I don’t remember.
What I do remember with crystal clarity are those cutting “clever” words. I remember being additionally embarrassed that he had just heard the joke, meaning people had been standing around, making fun of my contribution. I remember being nearly too embarrassed to retrieve back my bowl at the end of the picnic – I didn’t want people to know it was mine.
The Danger of Cleverness
There’s nothing wrong with the joke. I’ve heard before and since without an emotional reaction outside of enjoying the humor. In the moment, though, it wasn’t kind. The host chose to be clever instead.
Cleverness is a slippery sword, prone to injure bystanders when wielded recklessly.
I’ll share one example from my own life, although I’m extremely embarrassed about it because in addition to being hurtful, it also wasn’t clever. In college, for some insensitive reason, I developed the habit of exaggerating all of my pain and illnesses to the point of calling it all “cancer”. My cold, my stubbed toe, my flu all “felt like cancer”.
After probably weeks of me doing this, a girl in my dorm kindly and bravely explained to me that her mom had gone through cancer, and my jokes were a reminder of a really hard time in her life. Obviously, I haven’t made that joke since.
It’s Important to Be Kind
Wounds received from cleverness are like paper cuts – not quite deep enough to feel justified dealing with them properly, but just deep enough to be irritating or even painful. I was insanely lucky that the person I hurt had the courage to speak up. Usually, that’s not the case. Most people respond like I did at the picnic, unwilling to speak up at a slight that seemed so small.
Still, that small cut from cleverness has the potential to overshadow any surrounding kindness. If you’re distracted by a paper cut, you may not notice the smell of the roses.
Nearly everyone has been hurt by words that were meant to be clever. The hurt may not last for years (I’m not still upset about the salad), but in that moment, they sting.
It’s true that often times the offending party does not know the damage their words have done, but that’s not a free pass. Instead, that’s a reason for us to refine our sieves that we pass our “clever” words through, and be more discerning about the jokes we tell.
If there’s a chance that a joke or sarcastic remark could poke at someone’s insecurities, I’d encourage you to let it pass unsaid. It’s not worth the risk of sacrificing kindness so that you look clever.
I’d certainly prefer the reputation of lacking cleverness rather than lacking kindness. I hope you feel the same way.
Have you ever been hurt by something that was meant to be clever? How did you respond?