Intent versus Impact

Sundown at Carkeek ParkIt’s a jungle out there.

Trying to guess at others’ motives–all the while tangled up in our own reactions–it’s a wonder we communicate anything at all.

“I don’t think most people are out to hurt you,” a woman at a holiday party said today. “But it’s hard to overlook this when they something and it stings. Maybe they didn’t mean it that way. But it’s hard to realize that in the moment, when we’re hurt.”

She went on to give an example of a relative’s joke that had dredged up old pain about weight and overeating. “He didn’t mean it that way. He meant it to be funny. But still, I felt that sting.”

I’ve noticed as I get older, it’s easier to take these things in stride. Maybe it’s because, with experience, I realize most people are too preoccupied with making a certain impression. And ironically, this blinds them to the deeper wounds they might accidentally nick in trying to be funny or intelligent or gracious.

Sometimes people just don’t know us well enough to realize something will hurt.

Sometimes they forget.

And sometimes people are just plain insensitive and thoughtless.

But that’s still a long way from being malicious.

Most of us think well of ourselves. We think we’re good people, doing the best we can. And we hope others will take our comments and jokes in that light.

And I’ve learned that addressing an insensitive comment or social faux pas as if it really is a mistake–and not an intentional jab–gets me a lot further. I can resolve issues with fewer ruffled feathers on all sides.

Of course, I’m a slow learner. And it may take me a couple tries. In the meantime, there’s a lot of flailing. Maybe even a couple blind punches.

But in situations where I’m hurt or angry, my interactions turn out better if I consider that the intent behind the words was probably different from the impact.

This doesn’t mean we should shut our eyes to those who may not have our best interests at heart. Malicious people do exist. We’ve all known our fair share. One out of every 25, as Martha Stout claims in The Sociopath Next Door.

But that also means about 96% of the people we come across are decent human beings–trying to be decent. Coming up short, for sure. But who hasn’t?

So next time you come across that horribly awkward person who always seems to say the wrong thing at the wrong time, give the poor guy the benefit of the doubt. He’s probably so desperate to appear socially adroit that he’s forgotten everything but his own lines. It doesn’t mean you should make friends with him. But don’t get upset, either.

It just isn’t worth it.

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