International Women’s Day 2023: can we retire the boob jokes?

by | Mar 9, 2023

Wait. Time out. Hold up. Did he just say what I think he said? 

I looked around the room to gauge the reaction of other people to confirm my suspicion. 

You could feel the cringe spread throughout the ballroom. 

You could feel the oxygen being sucked out of the room. 

He took that silence for confusion like we weren’t “getting the joke,” so he repeated it. Any doubt I had about what I heard was gone.  After the second time–it was real–he just dropped an obnoxious, 3rd-grade, bro boob joke. At a professional conference. What. Was. Happening. 

I felt my “stroke vein” activated, checked out,  and summarily sat there stewing for the remainder of his time.

When he finished his talk, I sat myself in my chair and didn’t give one smack of a clap. I looked around the room to see the majority of the audience giving him a standing O. Curious. Interesting. Strange. 

I sensed that during the awkward silence and the mummers I heard and saw after the “ joke,” most people seemed not too pleased, so a standing O seemed an odd response. 

This suspicion was confirmed from conversations overheard and had in the hallways for the rest of the day–I was not the only one that thought his comments were ridiculous. Women and men alike were appalled. If that many people were offended, annoyed, upset, and flabbergasted, why was the majority of the room up out of their seats when he finished? 

The joke pissed me off immediately; the standing O has been a slow burn. After a few days of reflecting, I realize why. 

For this association, a standing O is standard. Part tradition, part encouragement, part hope that if you give one you’ll get one, part ego…it’s part of the culture. The long-time members and insiders know you give a standing O–that’s just what you do. When everyone jumps to their feet, you don’t want to seem like the curmudgeon sitting there giving a golf clap. 

I think this tradition is nonsense.  

It’s a lie. It’s misleading. It’s dishonest. It’s perpetuating bad behavior. It’s hypocritical. The applause says one thing that is completely different from the comments in the hallways. 

Guess what that speaker heard and saw? The standing O. Guess what he’s thinking? I nailed it! I knocked it out of the park! The people loved me! Guess what, chances are, he’ll do again? Tell the same stupid boob joke. 

This standing O tradition is choosing comfort over courage, to borrow a line from Dr. Brené Brown. It’s easier to stand with tradition, to follow the organizational and cultural norms, to feel good about ourselves for giving that standing O. 

It’s the incongruence that irks me. Which is it? Are you offended and choose to say something with your lack of applause, or do you go with the crowd because you don’t want to buck tradition?

Comfort is standing up and cheering him on because “I don’t want to seem unsupportive.”

Comfort is not addressing the behavior in your workplace, because that’s, “just how Sue is and she brings in a lot of sales.” 

Comfort is saying, “That’s just how we do things here…” even though the things aren’t aligned with your values and they are out of integrity. The “things” are pissing a lot of people off and people are either internally stewing or quietly–or not so quietly–quitting because they are sick of dealing with it. 

While the standing O situation is blatantly confusing because it’s rewarding him for bad behavior, the silent approach and not speaking up are more harmful, more hurtful, and more confusing because you think, “Is it me? Am I overreacting? Am I the only one that sees this is wrong?” 

I spent 10 years in restaurant management, the home of boob jokes, bro culture, bad language, and bad behavior. “Come on, Erin, take a joke! Lighten up! He didn’t mean it like that…” were lines I heard over. And over. And over. I put a smile on my face. I took it in. I tried to let it roll off my back. I didn’t know how to choose courage, because it was a male-dominated industry, the unspoken rule was to go along with it, and “that’s just how restaurants are.”  To be clear: it was not comfortable. It was exhausting. It was demoralizing. It was hard. 

Yesterday was International Women’s Day. It’s 2023. It’s been 18 years since I left the restaurant world. One would hope I would not have to write thoughts about the inappropriateness of boob jokes. Yet, here we are. 

The difference for me, now, is that I do have the courage to sit in my chair and not stand up, no matter what the crowds are doing. I do have the courage to share my thoughts in a rational, objective way with the association about my experience. I do have the courage to write a newsletter about boob jokes and standing up for ourselves–for yourself–in whatever situation you find that your values are being rubbed up against, your integrity is being checked, and you find yourself cringing because you know something just isn’t right. 

Choosing courage over comfort is hard. It can be exhausting. It can be awkward. It can alienate people and bring on criticism. At this point in my life and my career, I’m tired of smiling and not speaking up. Standing up and speaking out is what really deserves a standing O. 


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