Archive for February, 2013

There are two kinds of context.  The one in which something is presented, and the one in which something is consumed.  Words are spoken in the first kind of context, and they are heard in the second.  And these contexts do not always see eye to eye.

There are people who say that your intent doesn’t matter, only your words.  It doesn’t matter if you weren’t thinking of *that* when you spoke, if the person who heard you was, you’re still to blame, apparently.

I don’t agree with that.  It puts the burden of having to know the context of the lives of everyone who might possibly hear on you, and that is an impossible burden to bear, and it removes any possibility of reaching cultural understandings and simply makes one party “wrong”, end of discussion.

A person is responsible for their words, yes, but only to the degree that they can reasonably be expected to know or anticipate the reaction to them.  That means they are not responsible for every possible reaction based on a listeners individual context.

A person who makes rape jokes, then apologizes because he didn’t know one of the people listening had been raped… is not being defended here.  The context of the so-called “joke” is the problem in the first place, regardless of whether the person hearing has experienced it of not.   They may claim the intent was not to offend but such “jokes” are offensive by their very nature.

What I am saying is, if a person says something that they intended to be entirely innocent or mean something very different, they are not responsible for someone else misunderstanding what they meant or how they meant it.

This struck me today by way of a humorous almost-accident at work.

The manager, having reviewed the resume of a potential computer drafter, wrote a reply back that it looked as if she had excellent qualifications and experience in the field, but was concerned that the resume offered “no example of modeling experience.”

Once the reply was finished, he re-read the reply (which is something you should always do, by the way) and realized that what he meant was something very different than what might be taken by the recipient.  He quickly changed it to “solid  modeling experience,” but then realized that might not be any better.   After a brief moment of laughter as he was trying to come up with a reply that could not be misconstrued, he settled on “solid parts modeling experience.”

It got me thinking about how what we say can so easily be taken the wrong way, but that if he had sent off his first reply, would it have been fair to accuse him of being sexist because “What, the female drafter wasn’t a model, so that’s why you didn’t hire her??”   No, obviously that was neither the intent of his words nor the context in which the reply was being sent.

If he *hadn’t* noticed the possibility of being misunderstood, it still would have been his intent to inquire as to her experience in solid parts modeling not personal modeling.

That stuck in my mind, because people seem too quick to say intent doesn’t matter.  It doesn’t matter if you didn’t *intend* to offend anyone, you did.  It doesn’t matter if you didn’t *intend* to sound sexist, you did.  It doesn’t matter if you didn’t *intend* to sound racist, you did.

Well, I wonder about that.  If you didn’t intend to offend, and your words were not ones that by their nature are offensive, then yes, it does matter that you didn’t intend to offend someone.  Someone being offended is on their shoulders.  Understanding has to go both ways.  You can realize that in some contexts or with some people, what are otherwise innocent words can be misunderstood.  But you can never know what every person who hears/sees your words may possibly understand them as, and there is no phrase PC enough that you can avoid every possibility of offense.

If you meant to ask if a person had ‘solid parts modeling’ experience when you asked if they had ‘modeling’ experience, that is not the same thing as being sexist, even if someone else did not understand the context in which you asked the question and became offended.  Them misunderstanding you is not proof of your bigotry, nor does it somehow infuse your words with inherent bigoted language.  It should not become an issue where you must issue some sort of press-conference sized apology.

Them misunderstanding you is only an indication that further communication needs to take place to bring the speaker and the listener into a shared context of understanding.  It is *not* an indication that the listener has no obligation to understand what the speaker meant and that the speaker is the one who must make every concession towards understanding.

Yes, in this instance, it was noticed that ‘modeling experience’ could easily be misunderstood, because the speaker (writer) had a shared context with the perspective listener (reader) that allowed him to reasonably anticipate the possibility of misunderstanding and forestall that.

However, there are often times when a speaker can not anticipate the way his or her words would be understood because there is no shared context between the two of why the words are (or are not) offensive.

An example of this is a discussion I had with an Australian, in which I asked what – to me – was a simple and very innocent question, “which sports team are you rooting for?”  In American English, ‘rooting’ in this context would mean cheering for or supporting.  In Australian English, it meant something very, very different (and very vulgar) and lead to a momentary embarrassment before the usage of the word in our respective cultures was understood by the other to be very different than what our understanding was on our own.

In this case, there is no possible way I could have anticipated the vastly different definition we applied to the same word, or how my question could have been misunderstood or caused possible offense.  There is no way I could have known, because I had never before been in a position to learn.  And that is the crux of many misunderstandings, not that a person should have known better, but that they had never had the opportunity to learn.  Ignorance is a human *reality*, not a failing.  There is more in this world that we don’t know than what we do, so we should always be open to learning, and we should always be forgiving to those who simply haven’t learned yet.

So my intent was not to be vulgar and offensive, and even if my words had caused offense, such misunderstandings need to lead to communication and understanding on both sides.  It would not have been appropriate for the listener to demand an apology, to insist that what I meant didn’t matter because what I said was so offensive it was beyond intent, or that I should carry some burden of shame for having been misunderstood.

In this case, I did not cause offense, even if offense was taken.  Now, as a nice person, you should obviously apologize when your words hurt, but there should always be an effort to be understood as not having meant to cause hurt, and that really should count for a lot.

Again, there are examples of the meetings of cultures in days gone by, where what may be considered neutral or even good in one culture was considered very offensive in another.  But of course, until these cultures meet and communicate, there is no possible way for either to have known!  The burden should always be on gaining understanding, not holding onto our hurt feelings as if they truly are the only things that should matter.  Because really, if we understand others better, it is likely our feelings won’t be hurt by such things in the future.

Understanding goes both ways: the person speaking learns a new context and hopefully seeks to remedy that source of misunderstanding, and the person hearing learns to let go of a possible source of pain/offense.  Win-win, right?

That is why I get so upset when people say intent doesn’t matter.  Yes, it does.  Intent matters just as much as words do.  If a person says or does something that you find offensive, before you simply put it back on the person as being “obviously in the wrong”, consider that there are always two contexts, and just because you understood something as being offensive does not always mean that offense was intended to be given.

Now obviously this can sometimes be a cop-out.  I’ve snapped at a co-worker for making snarky remarks about a person’s last name in relation to whether they could speak English and of course he immediately replied “I didn’t mean to offend”… well, yes he did, he just didn’t think it would offend me.

There may be people you know who would not be offended by certain things, and it’s fine if you get your group together and say whatever you want knowing that you all share a context in which no offense will be taken and everyone walks away fine. I’m not talking about that.  What a few do in privacy between themselves isn’t up for anyone else to debate.

What I am talking about is what level of responsibility we can reasonably lay upon a person for their words, and what level of responsibility we must take on ourselves as the recipient (intended or not) of those words.

Just because you were offended doesn’t mean they were being offensive.  Your reaction is not the end-all of the argument, nor the only part of the equation that matters.  There is responsibility on both sides to understand and seek to better the dialogue, it is not a burden to be placed on just one side or the other.



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