Not long after the hyphen incident in curly mop's power-yoga class, spud had his annual consultation with his corporate-culture spirit guide. The result was The Memo: PotatoWare would not tolerate language that was offensive and thus discriminatory. Accompanying The Memo was The List, which identified words that were immediately banned from all office communications.
I read The List, and it just made me mad. There are commercials for condoms during prime time, but I can't ask Curly Mop, "What's new, pussycat?" I'm all for sensitivity — but what about sensitivity to my need to use the words with which I'm most comfortable? You know — words that can be taken at least two ways, if you're in a really juvenile mood.
So I banged out — sorry — I wrote my own memo in response. I argued that The List was political correctness run amok — that it was so lame as to be the stuff of black comedy.
Gina, Spud's new assistant (nose ring, vegan) caught up with me at the elevators, and thrust — sorry — shoved my memo under my nose. "So you've graduated from sexual innuendo to racial slurs."
"Gina, no offense, but you've got your head up your ass."
I got called in that afternoon. Dennis, the thug from human resources, sat at his desk, staring down at my memo. "You couldn't have said, 'African-American comedy'?"
"This is bullsh— this is cra— this is stupid. Look up 'black comedy' in the dictionary. It's a thing."
"You've given me no choice but to draw up another list — an addendum to the first one."
The next morning, when we arrived for work, List #2 was on our desks.
I called Rhonda for a latte. "This can't be for real," I said.
She read through the list. "Actually, it's pretty liberal," she said. "Colors are controversial: In our office, we can't root for the Washington Redskins. We can't even say 'green around the gills.' "
I stared at her.
"It's offensive to pregnant women with morning sickness."
he Lists took effect, and PotatoWare sank into silence. No more impromptu chats around Curly Mop's desk. Needless to say, I was blue — sorry — depressed.
Then, one day, Charm came up behind my chair. Charm, Quimby's admin, the suck-up's suck-up — sorry — sycophant's sycophant, leaned over and said, so quietly that I could hardly hear her, "Talk to me! Or are you yellow?"
I began to seek her out. We'd pass in the hallway, and I'd whisper: "Are you a Red?" She'd whisper back: "I'm as white-bread as they come."
We met whenever we could. One day, Charm and I were in the supply room, singing the chorus to "Jesus Loves the Little Children" — "Red and yellow, black and white/All are precious in his sight" (List#2) — when Dick (List #1) Johnson (List #1) from R&D poked his head (List #1) in and whispered, "Mind if I butt (List #1) in?"
The underground grew daily, until it was bulging (List #1) with new members (List #1).
One day, Spud was walking through the office. The place was empty. All he could hear was a low buzz — which he traced to the supply room, where Dennis was telling a joke that had never sounded so risqué: "What's black and white and red all over?"
Suddenly Spud was in the doorway. You could see a big vein throbbing (List #1) in the middle of his forehead. "I thought you'd all been sucked (List #1) into a black (List #2) hole (List #1)."
The next day, we got another memo. It revoked both List #1 and List #2 — and told us all to get the hell back to work.
This is episode nine in "Working Behind Enemy Lines," the Spy's continuing adventures in the new world of work.
A version of this article appeared in the November 1998 issue of Fast Company magazine.