Honestly, it doesn’t seem too much to ask. I just want to say what I mean and have it taken the way I meant it. How hard is that?
It turns out that it’s pretty hard, sometimes. There is the matter of context, for one thing. And then there is the little matter of interpersonal differences in communication. Those two little items are today’s topic.
Let’s start with context. How bad is it when your aide gives you a cue card that misspells potato(e) and you are caught on camera chiding a grade school child for spelling it without the final e-? It’s really not that bad unless you have established a reputation for being really stupid. Then it becomes what, in my family, we called a “nurn,” a word formed by corrupting the phrase “another one.” It becomes, that is, yet another instance of a very familiar category.
I just googled “potatoe” to make sure. Yup. Dan Quayle and the “potatoe episode” come up on the first screen, even though the google prompts tried to add a final s- to it. Dan Quayle cultivated an image of stupidity. I don’t know why. Maybe he thought it gave him “the common touch.” Quayle’s father said his son majored is “sex and booze” in college and noted that it wasn’t every guy who could maintain a double major.
But what that means is that if Quayle is to be taken seriously, he has to confine himself to mistakes of another kind. If people think of you as an education snob, the range of remarks you can make without being heard as though you were looking down on others gets small. If you are thought of as a relentless appreciator of others, even an ambiguous remark will be interpreted in the best possible light. If you are thought to be a racist, you really ought not to refer to a study you just read about the percentage of black coaches in the NFL. It doesn’t really matter what you say, it will be treated as a “nurn” (another instance of an already formed category) and thus, further evidence of your racism.
Let’s look at this from the standpoint of the football fan in that last example and let’s say he is actually not a racist although he is thought to be a racist. This fan pictures a scene like this. Ten guys are lined up before an audience. Each of them cites the same statistic about race and head coaching positions in the NFL. Nine of they are judged by the audience to have conveyed some interesting fact. You are judged to have made a racist remark. IT’S NOT FAIR!
No. It isn’t. Now the question arises of just what to do about it. I can’t really think of anything. Get new friends? Admit to having been a racist in the past so you can say you have turned over a new leaf? Ask your present friends to aspire to attributional heroism—the willingness to consider each and every time the possibility that what you said about race was NOT yet another instance of your racism? That is a great deal of work and if you have friends who will do it, you have wonderful friends.
Probably the best thing is never to say anything about race every again. What you say will not be “fairly” heard if by “fairly,” you mean it will be heard as if it were said by someone else.
The second case is easier in many ways. I counsel the quickest possible surrender.
This one comes from John Gray’s collection of insights in the Mars and Venus series. This example still has quite a bit of pop for me because it was the occasion of what authors Snell and Gail Putney call a “yellow-eyed cat” experience. That name comes from the great excitement their child exhibited upon seeing his first yellow-eyed cat. Their own cats had blue eyes and those were the only cats the kid had ever seen. The child was very excited when he saw the yellow-eyed cat because, according to his parents, he realized simultaneously a) that not all cats have blue eyes and b) that he had thought they did.
Here’s my yellow-eyed cat experience with life on Venus. “On Mars,” says Gray, “When a man says he is sorry, he is saying he made a mistake. The other man happily accepts his apology. He feels, Okay, now that you admit you are wrong and I am right, we can be friends again.” That didn’t just seem to me the way things are done, it seemed to me the only way things could be done. The questions here have to do with promises made, with obligations, with good behavior and bad.
On Venus, says Gray, that’s not how it goes. The questions do not have to do with promises made and who screwed up. They have, instead, to do with whether the woman you have disappointed has a right to be angry with you. In the field of that question, you tread at your peril.
On Mars, exculpation is possible. Yes, I was late but I stopped to help deliver a baby in a car at the side of the road. Yes, I was late, but I passed out as I was walking home and didn’t regain consciousness for several hours. Yes, I was late but I got involved in my project and forgot I said I would be here at 5:00.
Some of those exculpations are pretty good. The last one not so much. But the point is that, on Mars, it is the quality of the exculpations that matters. The good ones are accepted just as if no promises had been broken. That bad ones are rejected, and apologies are necessary and sometimes even restitution.
On Venus, exculpations are not possible—at least, they are not possible right away. The question is not, says Gray, whether you had a good reason for being late. No. The question is whether she is allowed to be upset that you were late. It isn’t the validity of your excuses. It is the validity of her feelings. It isn’t about you. It is about her. It isn’t about whether you were at fault. It is about whether you are willing to accept her expressions of blame, whether you were at fault or not.
I am the kind of person I introduced in the first paragraph. I want to be judged on the basis of my work. I want my good work to be praised and my bad work to be condemned. I want really good excuses to be accepted and really bad ones to be rejected. And then I realized, in the midst of all that, was that what I really really wanted, in all those cases, was for the transaction to be about me. That was my yellow-eyed cat experience and it carried a jolt with it.
I hadn’t ever noticed that before. I knew that “the right question” was whether I was at fault. I knew that “the right behavior” was to accept good excuses and to condemn bad ones. Even after I learned “how things work on Venus,” I played the game the way you accept the frame of reference of an Alzheimer’s patient. “Um…yes, here we are back at the farm where you grew up. See the piggies? See the horsies? I’m so glad we came back to see where you were a little boy.” I played that game and received all the benefits of it (domestic tranquility) for years before I realized that all I was being asked to do was to put her reality first instead of mine.
That doesn’t seem so bad. It seems like something a caring friend might do. It seems like something a caring husband might want to learn to do. If there is a principled reason for saying that we will get around to what you care about just as soon as we have taken care of what I care about, I don’t know what that reason is. I guess it would have to be that what I care about is more important than what you care about.
I know a lot of guys who would be willing to be more caring if they didn’t have to admit their guilt to do it. My advice? Do it. Don’t call it guilt. Call it “what you are caring about most right now.” When you start to justify yourself, call it “what I am caring about most right now.”
Or, for you constitutional scholars, let me ask you to look at the preamble. Hold “establish justice” in one hand and “promote domestic tranquility” in the other. Look back and forth a couple of times. Bear in mind that there are two systems of justice in play—forensic (Mars) and emotional (Venus), and only one system of domestic tranquility.
Make your choice and live with the results.