Emma Satyamurti is an employment lawyer and litigator, and a partner at law firm Leigh Day. She believes that humour can be a great tool in changing attitudes and talks about the way we’ve used a lighter angle with our latest End the Awkward ad.
Feeling awkward makes people do the strangest things. My own back-catalogue as an unwilling awkward-ee includes:
- being offered money
- being ignored
- being singled out;
- being chuckled at for no reason;
- being asked if I am ok when I am not doing anything that could suggest otherwise (unless being out of bed counts);
- being talked about as if I am not there (along the lines of “isn’t she super?”)
- being laughed at (admittedly mostly by children, and not very often).
These are by no means unusual experiences for disabled people, and there are many other variations on this theme. As part of its End the Awkward campaign, Scope has made some fantastic videos of disabled people talking about people’s responses to meeting them, which are as hilarious as they are poignant.
I don’t want to be too hard on awkwardness
I don’t want to be too hard on awkwardness though. It is very definitely not the same thing as hostility, or arrogance, or bigotry or the other horrible things that many disabled people are subjected to, though there may of course sometimes be an overlap.
Ironically, while being on the receiving end of awkwardness can be very uncomfortable, my sense is that awkwardness (and its close relative, anxiety) often arises from impulses which, properly channelled, are benign and indeed positively good: kindness, concern, worry about causing offence, protectiveness, sympathy and so on.
The End the Awkward campaign navigates this skillfully. In its light-touch and witty exploration of the issue, it conveys not so much a finger-pointing rebuke at misguided non-disabled folk, but a gently mocking send-up which cuts awkwardness down to size and shows how unnecessary it is.
Shared laughter is like shared food – it can bring people together and dissolve defences, at least temporarily. In the likely event that the ad makes us laugh (it’s very funny), I think we are all laughing at the same thing whether disabled or not.
What the ad makes fun of is the ridiculous panic of some of the non-disabled employees when a new and diminutive colleague is brought round to be introduced. It is this which the slapstick style of the film emphasises. We are encouraged to laugh not at the people themselves, but at what they do.
While disabled viewers may enjoy seeing a familiar scenario blown up into full-scale farce, non-disabled people may recognise a caricature of their own confusion in the office-workers diving for cover under their desks. But I would bet that any viewer will enjoy the comedy and cringe for the dapper new-joiner faced with such a woeful welcome.
It’s a fine line to be sure, and this is, I think, what makes the ad so clever. It packs a real punch but aimed at the issue, not at the inadequacy and vulnerability any of us can feel in an unfamiliar social situation. Awkwardness, embarrassment, ignorance, confusion; these are all states that thrive on silence. By bringing them loudly out into the open – diffusing, and at the same time defusing, them with humour – End the Awkward makes these things easier to recognise, talk about and change.