You Never Know Your Effect
All the forgiveness and apologizing leading up to Yom Kippur got me to thinking a lot about the fact that, often, we have no idea how our words and actions affect other people. This is mainly due to past events that people aren't privy to. But it means that a lot of the time, we don't apologize to the people we should. Or that we just conjure up emotions in others and have absolutely no clue that we do so.
I have two illustrations from the recent past to illustrate this. The first is when someone I know came recently up to me and said something to me in front of other people. It wasn't necessarily a negative comment, but it wasn't incredibly positive either. Additionally, other people overheard and started asking questions about it; and it wasn't about a topic that I typically discuss openly with those I don't know.
The person who made this comment to me had no idea that I found her remark slightly offensive. I know that she didn't mean it that way, but the words she chose to express herself were, at least the way I took it, slightly belittling. She also had no idea that she was speaking about a matter that I hold personal; that I don't share with a lot of people. So she didn't have any way of knowing that I would be embarrassed to have her airing it in front of others. Regardless, I was a bit hurt and uncomfortable, and attempted to extricate myself from the conversation as quickly as possible, without even saying good-bye.
As I said, I know this person had no idea that what she said was hurtful, and I don't hold a grudge against her. But it was just ironic to me that she said it right before Yom Kippur, in the midst of so many people offering and receiving apologies for hurt done to others. It made me realize that those whom I was asking forgiveness were probably not the right ones.
The other incident has occurred over the last week or two. I have a client who is very friendly. He's just a nice guy, and I have to deal with him in a customer service capacity. And I really appreciate clients who are nice, because we have plenty who aren't, especially when we are messing up their accounts. He has gotten a bit familiar with me, and has starting calling me a nickname. Nothing inappropriate. But what he has no idea of is that nickname brings to mind someone from my past whose exit from my life caused a good deal of pain. And whenever I hear the nickname, that pain is remembered, just a bit.
This client has no clue about my past, has never even met me in person. He has no idea that him being friendly is the cause for slightly a sad reminiscence on my part. But again, it drives the point home to me that we never, ever know how we affect other people.
What can we do about this? I'm not sure there is much we can do, because there is no way for us to know the past history and sensitivities of others, especially those we don't know so well. But I think it can help us be more understanding of surprising reactions in others. Because we never know the whole story.