By the Way, Sue is Gluten-free
One thing I love about being in Rehoboth in the summer is knowing there is a good chance that dinner on a busy Friday or Saturday night will not require having to wait in line at some of our favorite restaurants.
Before you get too excited that I am going to share information about a secret VIP membership that gets you a table on a moment’s notice to Salt Air or Henlopen Oyster House—that’s not the reason.
It’s because we have a group of friends who love to entertain, regularly inviting up to 30 friends over for a casual dinner. Someone will offer to bring their favorite salad or a few bottles of wine and before you know it, we are enjoying a delicious three course meal with all the fixings.
When we were younger, we rarely asked if anyone was a vegetarian and assumed everyone would find something to their liking. Times certainly have changed. Our palates have matured to allow the menu to include grilled salmon and steak—but one size may not fit all anymore.
More and more we get a call from a guest letting us know they have a dietary restriction, which can range from being a vegetarian to avoiding gluten because they are living with celiac disease. Even though we try to think ahead when planning the menu to accommodate the various dietary restrictions and/or preferences, there are times when we forget to ask.
This happened when a friend we have come to know in recent years arrived at our home for a simple dinner that featured only grilled chicken, corn on the cob, and a large vegetable salad. I noticed she only placed the corn and salad on her plate. Being Jewish, making sure all guests have plenty to eat is an obsession, so I immediately asked if I could get her some chicken. She politely declined saying she is a vegetarian.
I felt terrible for many reasons, Jewish guilt notwithstanding. First, I had been told prior to that night she was a vegetarian and completely forgot, Even worse, when she said this happens all the time and not to worry, I realized that my insensitivity may have made her feel unwelcome.
As a diversity consultant for more than 25 years, I knew better. What was a simple oversight on my part can be interpreted very differently by the other person, i.e., that their needs mattered less than those of the rest of the guests.
Before you say, “Give me a break, it’s impossible to please everybody all of the time,” let me try to explain how she may feel using an analogy to which most readers will relate.
When I graduated college in the mid-80s, I began my career at IBM as a marketing representative, selling to federal government accounts. This was a big deal for me not only because working at Big Blue was prestigious but more importantly it paid well and would enable me to get a jump start on paying off my student loans.
Back then, success in sales at IBM was based on the ability to sell large mainframe computers to customers, as well as fitting in with the male-dominated culture. As a closeted gay man with a boyfriend, this was no simple task.
Survival meant laying low and avoiding having to answer questions about my love life. I cannot tell you how many times my colleagues, assuming that I was heterosexual, wanted to set me up on dates with women.
Over time, this had a demoralizing effect on me. The way I saw it, IBM was telling me being gay made me inferior in some way to those who were not, that it was a barrier to my success at IBM, and ultimately, that I was not welcome there. In the end, I chose to leave IBM even though I came to learn afterwards that, at that time, it was one of the most LGBT-friendly companies in the nation.
The moral of both of these stories is that when we make assumptions about others based on our cultural and social experiences, our words and actions can communicate something entirely different to other people, even though no ill will was intended. This is the essence of what unconscious bias is all about and how it can make others feel as if they do not belong when we get it wrong.
Being inclusive is an intentional act but it does not require much work. So, the next time you are organizing a dinner outing or hosting a group, stop for a moment and think about who will be there. Taking the time to ask whether the restaurant selection or menu will work for everyone will show that you care about whether or not those in attendance will leave with a good taste in their mouths.▼
Wesley Combs is a diversity and inclusion expert and a passionate social justice advocate. He is the founding Principal of Combs Advisory Services where he works with clients who share his values of enabling equity, equality, and opportunity in the workplace and the community.