“Except for extreme physical abuse,” avers Epictetus, “other people cannot hurt you unless you allow them to. And this holds true even if the person is your parent, brother, sister, teacher, or employer. Don’t consent to be hurt and you won’t be hurt.” Like all Stoic philosophers, Epictetus places responsibility for offense solely on the shoulders of the offended listener.
Twenty-first-century progressives tend to be equally immoderate, but in the opposite direction. For instance, Sarah Mei recently tweeted: “Blows my mind that there are still people in the world who don’t understand basic stuff like: your intentions don’t matter. If someone thinks you were mean, you were mean—even if you didn’t intend to be!—and you should work to make it right.”
If you’re offended by something, it’s always good to consider the possibility that you’re the problem. Taking that possibility off the table categorically, as Mei does—“If someone thinks you were mean, you were mean”—is a recipe for bad communication. Because the way I feel isn’t necessarily a fair or accurate reflection of reality. The fact that I think someone is being mean to me doesn’t necessarily mean that they’re actually being mean to me. Maybe I’m just sick. Maybe I’m just tired. Maybe I just misunderstood what was said.
I was very sick with the flu and strep throat a few weeks ago. It made me extremely grumpy for a few days. I took everything the wrong way, snapped at everyone, and thought everyone was being mean to me. But of course they weren’t being mean; I was just being unreasonable and uncharitable. Thank God I didn’t have someone like Sarah Mei around to enable my crazy!
Human communication is complicated and misunderstandings abound. If we’re going to figure things out together, speakers need to be as clear and sensitive to their audience as possible, and listeners need to be as charitable and self-aware as possible. Placing all of the responsibility for reception on the listener or the speaker is decidedly unwise. Both ways lead to badness.
—John Faithful Hamer, The Myth of the Fuckbuddy (2018)
Oh wow!! But I’m not responsible for anyone’s interpretation. I believe if we come from a place of kindness…that’s all we can do. After all I don’t see the world the way it is, I see it the way I am. Using non-violent communication and asking clarifying questions and actually communicating is key. I have no control over an interpretation…I feel intention is everything.
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