Sunday, April 27, 2008

But I didn't mean to!

We all screw up. Seriously, it's practically the hallmark of being human to screw up.

We all screw up where other people can see it. See above. Or see any one of several current messes on LJ and the Internets. Sadly, pulling the cat thing of 'I meant to do that' and sauntering off to hide behind the sofa doesn't work any more often for people than it does for cats.

Sometimes we screw up in ways that only damage our own dignity. If you want, you can try the cat sauntering trick and maybe you'll be one of the rare folks who pulls it off. If you want you can laugh at yourself first, and others will join in or (blessings on their generous spirit) assure they know just how you feel.

That is not what I am here to talk about.

We all screw up, and sometimes we do that in ways that damage someone else. We hurt their feelings. We tread on their toes. (Or tomato plants. Obscure reference, nothing to see here, move along)

And when we tread on someone else's toes, an impulse that seems rooted in the very human soul is to say 'But I didn't mean to!'. I understand. You feel bad, and you don't want the other person to think you are a bad person. I've heard this reaction from kids as young as three.

Don't do it. Don't be that kid. Don't make discussion of your mistake and its effect on someone else about your intent. Because your intent is not more important than the fact you are standing on someone else's foot. And please jeebus don't stand on their foot and insist they tell you its okay because it was an accident as a condition of your stepping off.

Little kids go through this phase where they believe in magic words. If they say please they should get what they are asking for no matter what. If they say they didn't mean to they can keep on standing on your foot. If they say I'm sorry they can keep on kicking their baby brother. Clearly, that's absurd.

First thing to do if you find yourself kicking your baby brother is to knock it the hell off. Then you say you're sorry. Then you figure out if he needs a bandaid or an ice cube in a washcloth for the knot you raised. Then you admit that you would not like it if your baby brother kicked you because being kicked hurts. Then, after your baby brother has been seen to, it might be worth discussing that you were just kind of swinging your foot around and not actually at your baby brother and next time you'll look to make sure first.

Let's change examples here.

When you're learning to drive a car one of the hardest things to get the hang of is checking your blind spots. You're managing half a dozen processes at once tootling down the road and along with everything else that's going on you have to be aware that other people are using the road and you might not be able to see them. It could be an artifact of your car's design. It could be that visibility is not so great and you're mostly thinking about whether or not you remembered the notes for your meeting.

The fact remains that you have to check your blind spots. I'd be willing to bet one of the commonest things traffic cops hear at accident scenes is 'I didn't see him!'. You only meant to change lanes, you didn't mean to hit the sub-compact, right?

Life is like that. We all have blind spots. We all say stuff without realizing that we're not even considering someone else's experiences in the world. I do it, and when I catch it I feel like crap. When I don't catch it until someone says 'uh, you're standing on my foot/ignoring my life' I feel even worse. What I try really hard to do at that point is take a deep breath and remind myself that my intent and my feelings are not more important or real than the person I just hurt. It isn't about 'I didn't mean to!'. It's about what I did.

True story. I was working security at a con many years ago. A fan who couldn't afford membership plus a hotel room decided to attend. He'd been sleeping in the video room, feeding himself off the free snacks in the hospitality suite, that kind of thing. And although he couldn't afford a room or buying meals, he could afford to buy a couple of six packs of beer.

In what I think was a misguided attempt to not be a total mooch he hauled his beer into the con hotel and stored it in the ice machine on the third floor near the room parties. Every now and then he'd go fetch himself a beer. From the public ice machine.

To phrase this as neutrally as I can, the hotel was not happy. People from the nearby room parties who found glass bottles in a cardboard carrier in the ice they wanted to use for their parties were not happy. And I, who had to go find this guy, get him to admit it was his beer and (at the con and hotel's joint request) get him to surrender his con badge and leave the con, I was not happy at all.

He was livid. He kept pointing out he hadn't meant any harm. And no matter how often I repeated that it wasn't a good idea to put foreign objects (Glass? Cardboard of uncertain cleanliness?) in a public ice machine he just wouldn't hear it. He left the con, went straight to the local comic and game store and spent the next several months telling all and sundry what an irrational bitch I was. Blind spot the size of Jupiter.

Meanwhile, back at the con, the hotel has to close down that ice machine, empty it and clean it because the ice could be contaminated. An entire floor of room parties now has to fetch ice from other floors and the other machines are taking an extra load. The stairwells and elevators are taking more traffic just for ice runs. The con committee is dealing with a hotel manager who is annoyed at the con goers and is now watching with eagle eyes for further infractions. The con was a little less of a happy place than it had been.

But he didn't mean to!