Don worked at the same newspaper where I worked for many years. We were in different departments, but Don was an outgoing fellow who seemed to know everyone in the building, so I knew him well. The paper's general manager was once a man named Robert Blake. One day Don was heard to say something like "that SOB Blake" just as Blake himself walked around the corner. It must have been an awkward moment, but instead of getting angry, Blake smiled and thanked Don for thinking of him as "Sweet Old Bob." Don not only kept his job, but he earned new respect for his boss and retired many years later as a valued employee. Blake continued to be thought of as Sweet Old Bob by many of his employees until his own retirement.
Most of us aren't as lucky as Don when we say something negative that later gets back to our target, if it isn't overheard in the first place. And most of us aren't as gracious as Bob Blake when we learn what others are saying about us.
This sort of embarrassment happens to someone every day. The other day it happened to Ohio State president Gordon Gee. His comments about other college football teams -- "those damn Catholics" at Notre Dame and supposedly inferior academic achievements at Louisville and members of the SEC -- were made last December, but they just became public knowledge a few days ago.
Gee has, of course, apologized, but apologies don't help much in these situations. He can say he was just joking, but being laughed at can be worse that just being insulted. Now Gee and his university are the ones being laughed at, but not behind their backs.
When I was a reporter covering city hall in Mansfield, Ohio, back in the late 1960s, the service-safety director was a man named Paul L. White who was fond of the phrase "just between us girls." He would often say this to me not just when something was off the record but also when he had a juicy bit of city hall gossip to tell me.
Most, if not all, of us enjoy talking "just between us girls," saying things that we hope won't be repeated outside the room. We like to air complaints and make jokes to sympathetic ears, expressing feelings we could never reveal in front of those we are talking about. When Gee spoke to the OSU Athletic Council in December, he thought he was talking "just between us girls."
Yet today, more than ever before, there is no such thing as "just between us girls," especially when someone is as prominent as Gee. Interesting comments are recorded on cell phones. Cameras are everywhere. Text messages can be sent even before the speech is over. Almost everyone is on Facebook. And people still like to gossip the old-fashioned way, face to face.
All of us, and those in high places in particular, need to be more careful about the things we say. If it's not something we would be willing to say in front of those we're talking about, perhaps we shouldn't say it at all.
And a little more grace wouldn't hurt. After all, it's not like we are saints either.