I remember my first exposure to sarcasm. As a ten year old baseball player, I made the All-Star team in our league (for the record, every ten year old made the All-Stars because of the small size of our league). In our generation, “All-Star” teams were similar to today’s travel teams, except with only one tournament at the end of baseball season instead of fifty-two all over the country every weekend of the year. We’d have a tournament against other leagues in our home county, then against the city kids in Montgomery if we won our county. Once that was over, the rest of the summer was ours!
On my first all-star team that summer, another team’s coach served as the manager instead of my team’s coach, so it was like starting over again unless you’d played on his team during the regular season. At our first All-Star practice, several of us, outfielders maybe, were warming up and talking in short right field before practice. Some instructions were shouted to the assembled group, but for whatever reason, none of us responded or moved. The ten year olds. On the first day of practice. With a new team and and a new coach.
Then came a question in a tone that I’d never heard before: “Do you need an engraved invitation to go to left field?”
We didn’t react immediately as our ten year old brains began to unpack the question. We did pick up on a few cues however: “Left field,” and knowing that we were currently in right field, we needed to move. And, since he asked a question, we should probably answer him because you always respond when an adult asks you a question. But, he doesn’t sound happy with us and might not want an answer (little did we know we were getting exposed to rhetorical questions as well as sarcasm). Regardless, we knew something wasn’t right where we were so we beat feet for left field.
From that point, I don’t remember a single thing about any of our all-star practices except that question on the first day. I do remember our team losing our first tournament game, then winning out to win the Area Championship. We went on to lose two games to the city teams and had the rest of the summer off before school started in August. My friends and I had a good time playing baseball together and being kids. I played centerfield and wore #7.
In reflecting on our coach’s question almost 40 years separated from that day, I can state the following with absolute certainty:
- No ten year old baseball player in the Holtville Dixie Youth League in 1982 had ever seen an engraved invitation, much less received one for any of our birthday parties.
- We’d still be running foul poles if one of us had answered his question in the affirmative.
I wonder now, what was his intended purpose or desired effect? We all went to left field. I’m pretty sure we’d have gone to left field no matter what. Even if he’d just gotten our attention and said “hey, run to left field.” We’d have run over there still not knowing anything about sarcasm or rhetorical devices.
Was it to make himself feel better or smarter than the ten year olds since we didn’t hear him or understand him the first time? Was it to assert his dominance or authority? Was he trying to embarrass us or make us feel dumb? I’m almost fifty years old and still have no idea. What I do know is that whatever it was, it wasn’t about us. It was about him.
In our communications with others, and especially in our most difficult coaching and leadership conversations, our goal should be to encourage and model positive behavioral change. What approach has a higher likelihood of success if behavior needs to change? Shame, humiliation, embarrassment, and punishment? Or reflection, recommendations, partnership, planning for next steps, and following up? You can get behavior to change either way, engraved invitations notwithstanding. The only difference will be the relationship that exists once they get to left field.