JERRY SEINFELD, KRAMER, INSULTS AND THE N-WORD
Over the past couple of months on this blog in weekly posts I have been discussing criticism. This past week on the internet I came upon an episode of Jerry Seinfeld’s internet show “Comedians in Car Getting Coffee.” There, Jerry and his fellow comedian, Michael Richards, discuss a very unfortunate incident that dramatically illustrates some of the ideas I’ve been trying to convey to my readers.
As most of you know, one of the most popular TV comedy series in history is “Seinfeld.”
And one of the funniest characters on the show is Kramer, played by Michael Richards.
After the cast stopped making new episodes, Michael began to perform as a standup comedian. One night, about seven years ago, a black man interrupted Michael’s act and criticized him, saying, “You’re not funny.” Michael, according to his own words that he expressed during a nationally televised apology, went into a rage and used the N-Word to insult the black man.
Now, in posts on this blog I have made the argument that when responding to criticism there are five levels of maturity (see RESPONDING TO CRITICISM: FOUR LEVELS OF MATURITY and RESPONDING TO CRITICISM: THE MOST MATURE LEVEL). I am now going to describe the five levels, and as you look them over, see if you can identify which level best describes how Michael handled the criticism he received during his act.
RESPONDING TO CRITICISM: FIVE LEVELS OF MATURITY
1. This level requires displaying one or more of the following:
- Weeps or sobs with tears or pouts
- Physically attacks the criticizer
- Damages property
2. This level requires displaying one or more of the following:
- Insults the criticizer (either with words, hand gestures, the sticking out of a tongue, the rolling of the eyes, or smirks)
- Glares at the criticizer
- Threatens the criticizer
- Punches, kicks, or throws an object without physically hurting someone or damaging anything
- Criticizes the criticizer without first fully addressing the original criticism.
3. This level requires displaying one or both of the following:
- Displays defensiveness without directly insulting the criticizer (raising voice’s volume or pitch)
- Displays a lack of interest either by verbally indicating this, or with nonverbal cues, or complete silence.
4. Level 4 individuals listen to the criticizer in a supportive, warm, friendly style, and then make it clear that they fully understand what was said. Moreover, they put the criticizer at ease by making statements that indicate that the wise learn from criticism. Some time is spent on showing that they are thinking about the criticism. If, after thinking about the criticism the criticism is deemed to be correct, they make a statement frankly indicating, “I can see your ideas have merit and I intend to use them in the future.” If they are not sure if they agree, they make a statement indicating that they are very interested in what was said, plan to think a little more about this over the next few days and then they will be ready to discuss this further. If, after thinking about the criticism, the criticism is deemed to be incorrect, a statement is made designed to disagree without being disagreeable. More specifically, a sense of humor, some listening in a caring way and a few smiles help to traverse rough terrain. As the episode winds down, the criticizer is encouraged to feel comfortable communicating suggestions in the future.
5. In addition to actions consistent with level 4, people responding to criticism in a manner consistent with level 5 seek ways to use, whenever they disagree with the criticism, a technique known as steering in the direction the criticizer would prefer to go. That is, rather than just disagreeing without being disagreeable, the criticized person seeks to find a new choice of action that creatively utilizes some aspect suggested from the criticism. Steering cannot be incorporated into all situations, but it is an additional goal of the most mature individuals.
YOUR ANSWER, PLEASE
After looking over the description of the five levels, which best matches the response that Michael used to respond to the criticism he received at the comedy club? After you decide, you get to compare your answer to mine.
Level 2 strikes me as describing best Michael’s response. Referring to a black person with the N-Word strikes me as seeking to insult the person. His response is viewed as one of the lowest levels of maturity for a variety of reasons already discussed on this blog. In this particular case, we readily see what kind of harm can occur when we respond in this way. Michael, on Seinfeld’s internet show, describes how he has been unable to work for seven years after the event took place. “I busted up after that event. It broke me down. It was a selfish response. I took it too personally, and I should have said, ‘You’re absolutely right. I’m not funny. I think I’ll go home tonight and work on my material.'”
If Micheal had responded as he said he should have, what level would that have been? I think level 4 is a pretty good match. If Michael did respond at level 4, the past seven years would have been dramatically better for him.
Now, I’m not attempting to suggest that every time someone responds to criticism as Michael did such awful things occur. In most cases that you might respond in an immature way, people just become angry and lose a little respect for you. But sometimes even worse things happen to someone who responds to criticism with insults, as the Michael Richards’ case illustrates. And sometimes even worse things happen then what happened in the Michael Richards’ case. There are cases when the insults led to an escalation of a conflict until people turned violent and were murdered.
Some people will enjoy reading this blog by beginning with the first post and then moving forward to the next more recent one; then to the next one; and so on. This permits readers to catch up on some ideas that were presented earlier and to move through all of the ideas in a systematic fashion to develop their emotional intelligence. To begin at the very first post you can click HERE.