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Learning What Not To Do From Paula Deen


This is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. I'm Michel Martin. Later in the program, we'll talk about college students and Facebook. We've all noticed how much they all seem to love it. But it turns out how they use the social media site varies quite a bit depending on who they are, and that can actually help or hurt their success in school.

We'll talk about that in just a few minutes. But first, we want to talk about something that is very much trending on social media. We're talking about celebrity chef Paula Deen and her troubles after it was revealed that she made racially insensitive comments. In case you missed it, here's just a moment from her tearful interview on the "Today" show yesterday.


PAULA DEEN: I know how I treat people. I know my love for people. And I'm not going to sit here and tell everything that I have done for people of color. I'm not going to do it. Somebody else can tell that.

MARTIN: Now her story is her own, but she's just the latest high-profile celebrity who's been caught making comments that most Americans now find offensive, whether about race or sexual orientation or religion, thinking here about the actors Mel Gibson or Isaiah Washington or Michael Richards.

But we're also thinking about how you go about making amends, if you've messed up and you don't have Olivia Pope, the famous fixer of the hit TV show "Scandal," to help you out. To talk about this, we called Steven Petrow. He's an author of several books on etiquette. He writes the "Civil Behavior" column for The New York Times, and he's back with us. Steven, welcome back. Thanks so much for joining us once again.

STEVEN PETROW: Great to be with you, Michel.

MARTIN: I just want to point out, you're not a public relations consultant. You're not the guy who kind of goes out and, you know, tells you which charities you should support to help you deal with the situation. You're the etiquette guy. So what does etiquette have to do with this?

PETROW: Well, it has a lot to do with this. And I love the analogy that I might be Olivia Pope this morning, however, even though that's not what I do in real life.

MARTIN: Happy to help.

PETROW: But thank you. But, you know, what etiquette really is is a set of rules that help us traverse these difficult, you know, these gaffs, these faux pas. And, you know, Paula Deen, you know, comes from the Southern culture which, you know, people generally say is so, you know, is so sort of etiquette heavy and full of high etiquette. And she's really managed to, unfortunately, misstep every step of the way, starting with, you know, as you said, the apology, "sort of."

You know, apologies really need to be heartfelt, authentic, and you need to say the words, the three words, I am sorry. And, you know, with all of her apologies, the three video ones, yesterday's interview with Matt Lauer, she has yet to actually say, I am sorry, which is sort of the fundamental.

So, you know, without that foundation of coming clean, understanding what your offense has been, it is difficult to get to the next step, which is, you know, which is where we are, which is where all people go once they've made a mistake.

MARTIN: Is there something that the rest of us can learn from this? I mean, most people aren't going to be invited on to the "Today" show to talk about their problems, but it is the case that sometimes people find that they have said something, they've been overheard to say something. I mean, you know, people have had the awful experience of hitting "reply all" when they should not have.


MARTIN: What does, what do you do? What do the rest of us do in a situation like that?

PETROW: Yeah. I mean, and, you know, really what's happened with Paula Deen and the other celebrities that you mentioned, they are teachable moments for the rest of us because we all make these kind of gaffs or offensive remarks or of some sort. And, you know, and so there are a number of lessons that we can take away, you know. So first of all, it's, you know, doing your apology right. Secondly, let some time go by after you've apologized to the person whom you've offended.

You know, Paula has kind of rushed in time and time again. Everything is still so raw. I mean, you see that, you know, she is still weepy. We just heard that on the clip. But for the rest of us, you know, give it a little bit of time so that you can absorb what you've done. And perhaps, you know, the person whom you offended will also either put it in context and take it down a notch - sometimes it's not what it seems to be in the moment - or, you know, it's real importance does become clear, and you need to then go to the next step, which is to make amends of some sort.

And that means going, you know, beyond the apology, but, you know, offering to do something substantive that will counter, you know, what you did. And, you know, we've seen with some of the other celebrities, they do public service announcements for some of the gay and lesbian groups or for the antidiscrimination groups. You know, on a personal level, you might want to actually go and ask the person whom you've offended, what can I do to make this situation better?

MARTIN: Can I just stop you, though, and ask you about the whole question of waiting? Now let's just set aside kind of the personal interest of the "Today" show in having her on immediately because they had advertised the interview. You do get the sense that she was criticized for waiting. She says she waited because she physically couldn't handle it.

She just wasn't in a position where she felt she could handle that, you know, experience. She seems to be getting a lot of criticism for that. Are you saying that, actually, her instinct was probably right, that she should have waited to take a step back from it, that that was the right thing to do?

PETROW: Actually, no. There's sort of the two parts here - the timing of the apology and then, sort of, the timing of making amends. So the apology should really happen as soon as you understand that you have offended somebody. So, you know, she should not have waited until it became a news item. It should have happened sooner.

So her initial response to do that was right. But in terms of rebuilding, there you want to put a little time and a little space in between the offense and your next steps. You know, we've seen that, you know, with celebrities and real folk. They kind of go underground for a while. They need to process. Everyone needs to kind of come to the next understanding. And then you come back and say or do, you know, what's appropriate. So two parts there.

MARTIN: Well, you know, can I ask you about the whole question of having, kind of, conversations with yourself in public? Because it is often the case, that I have observed in some of these situations, people generally don't seem to understand that what they've done is wrong, or they don't understand that it's wrong in the same way that other people think that it's wrong. And I think a lot of people have had the experience where someone important to you, somebody whose opinion you respect, does find, or a group says that this is wrong, this is offensive, and you genuinely don't understand.

I can - what comes to mind here is, remember during the 2008 campaign, when Joe Biden called, or a number of political figures referred to President Obama as oh, he's articulate, he's clean, that kind of thing. And it was Joe Biden, it was the Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid. And a lot of people didn't understand, what's so terrible? I wouldn't mind being called offensive. But other people - I wouldn't mind being called articulate. But other people did find it offensive. When it's a situation like that, where you really don't see it and other people do, what do you recommend?

PETROW: Well, you know, a lot of times when people don't see it, it's in part because of the world they live in, where everyone is reflecting their own values back and forth to each other, and so there's sort of no reality check there. You know, it's important to, you know, when you realize you've done something, and even if you don't quite understand it, go outside of your circle and ask someone else, help me understand why this seems to have offended someone.

And I think, you know, Joe Biden, you know, quickly, quickly did that and then came to an understanding that he had tapped into this vein of really racist thought, you know. I think the same thing will happen with Paula Deen, you know, with the statement, you know, "I is what I is," you know, what she said on the "Today" show yesterday. That's a very loaded historical statement, and I don't think she's understanding, you know, its impact. So we need to go outside of our circles and get reality checks from those who don't always agree with us.

MARTIN: And before we let you go - we only have a minute left here - if you are among the aggrieved, right, if you are the target of the slur, is there something you should do to be civil in your behavior?

PETROW: Well, one thing I think is important is, of course, civility. However, it's very important if anyone is aggrieved that they speak up and they say, this has offended me. You know, whether it's - whether it's racist, homophobic, about religion. People who are making these remarks will take silence as acceptance or agreement. And so I always say, you know, take them aside. You know, it's not, the point is not to embarrass them, but definitely make your point of view heard.

MARTIN: That was author and etiquette columnist, Steven Petrow. He writes the "Civil Behavior" column for The New York Times. He was with us from member station WUNC in Chapel Hill, North Carolina. Steven, thanks so much for speaking with us.

PETROW: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.