I watched the chaotic incident with Will Smith and Chris Rock at the 94th Academy Awards and, like many people around the world, was stunned at what had just transpired. Was it part of the act, or something more? From a place of transparency, I love Will Smith. I think he is a great actor. More importantly, I perceive him to be a fine human being — a man of character and integrity. I also don’t particularly enjoy Chris Rock’s comedy.
Let me start from the beginning. During the Academy Awards broadcast, in a moment of emotional dysregulation, Will Smith, reacting to a joke by Chris Rock, walked on stage and slapped him. The joke was a reference to his wife, Jada Pinkett Smith, who shaved her head late last year after struggling with alopecia. After taking his seat, Smith continued to berate Rock shouting at him to “Keep my wife’s name out of your f-king mouth.” Will Smith essentially “flipped his lid”. This is an American slang expression and implies a metaphor of a pot boiling over and knocking off its cover.
We all have moments when we flip our lid. It is part of being human and manifests when we feel attacked or threatened. Our rational brain shuts down, our emotions take over and we experience an amygdala hijack. Was Will Smith justified in his actions as he went to bat for his wife? Did Chris Rock go too far with his “G.I. Jane 2” joke? People are passionately divided in their opinions. I offer my perspective.
Earlier in the show, one of the hosts, Regina Hall, joked about Will and Jada’s open relationship saying his wife had approved it. I think this comment unnerved Smith and he felt attacked. So, when Rock made what I consider an innocuous comment in the scheme of things, it was like the straw that broke Will’s back and he reacted violently, out of proportion. And can you imagine if Chris Rock would have reacted in kind and slapped Will Smith right back? Thank goodness, he showed some restraint. The story of the 94th Academy Awards has become the story of the slap. Not the story of the thousands of people associated with the awards showcasing their life’s work who deserved their moment of recognition.
My disappointment is that Will Smith could have made this right when he took to the stage to receive his Best Actor award for his role in King Richard, the father of tennis stars Venus and Serena Williams. In his tearful address, he apologized to the Academy and his fellow nominees but did not apologize to Chris Rock. He explained his actions as one of defending his family by saying “Love will make you do crazy things”. Rather than justifying his actions, how much more powerful would it have been if he would have used his platform to say that he did not appreciate the comedian’s joke about his wife but that did not give him the license to do what he did? What if he would have taken accountability for his actions? What if he would have humbly asked everyone to not focus on this one incident, because the Oscars are about the thousands of people who celebrate their craft? I think it would have allowed people, regardless of the side they were on, to move forward.
I am a leadership development consultant and I teach people about emotional intelligence and strategies to manage their emotions effectively. Sometimes my clients tell me that when they go to work, they leave their emotions at the door. This is not possible to do because we are emotional creatures and if we suppress our emotions, we act them out. Emotional intelligence is about being able to understand and manage our own emotions and recognize the emotions of other people. And these skills are important whether you are a manager, a spouse, a parent or a child. One way I manage my emotions when I feel attacked is to pause for 6 seconds and take a deep breath, label what I’m feeling and think about how I want to show up in this situation. Waiting 6 seconds before responding to a situation when triggered allows one to respond to the situation, rather than reacting to it. 6 seconds is the minimum amount of time required to put emotions on hold when confronted with an escalating situation.
We all flip our lids on occasion. It is very human to feel angry. It’s just such a shame that this happened in public by a dynamic and globally-recognized actor who could have used his platform to show how to handle a challenging situation with grace.