Damn, that sounded a lot better in my head
I’m guilty of thinking out loud. As in, I say something — wait for it — oh fuck, that sounded stupid/insulting/wrong. Is it just me?
Usually, I can just immediately call myself out, rephrase, explain myself. You know, acknowledge my mistake, fix it best I can, apologise, and move on.
For example, a while back during a debate triggered by a case of revenge porn making the media rounds, I raised my voice slightly in a dramatic rant and barked You do not even understand the implications! at a colleague.
What I meant was, you, the hypothetical individual publicly sharing nudes that were sent to you in private, do not understand the implications (which include but are not limited to PTSD, irreparable career damage, and suicide).
What my debate partner saw, was me barking at her. I took notice of her slightly defensive body language and immediately realised I had, in the heat of making my case, phrased shit in an interpretable, over-the-top manner that could easily have been misread into a stab at her personally.
I immediately rephrased and lowered my dramatic tone, to make it clear that I was most definitely not trying to insult my debate partner herself. Life moved on. She still speaks to me, though to be fair we are colleagues, so it’s kind of hard to avoid doing so.
This kind of slip-up happens to a lot of other people, too, right? Life is awkward like that; sometimes we say stupid shit and we don’t realise it’s stupid until we hear ourselves say it. After all, conversation is not chess: it’s fluid and spontaneous, and therefore prone to a lot more human error. It’s raw and potentially messy.
To not be willing to risk the messiness and human error is to remain forever socially anxious and silent at parties, and I’m trying to get over that. So, I’m trying to accept that I might, and probably will, say some stupid shit that I will have to rectify and live with.
But what about the shit you never get a chance to rectify?
Sometimes I take hours to realise I’ve said something stupid. Am I alone here?
It’s four, five hours, maybe even a day or two post-fact. My mind is relaxed, finally at rest after an overcrowded, sensory-overload-triggering social situation that I did my best to enjoy despite the, well, constant, urgent, painful sensory overload.
And it hits me.
I freeze. Pupils dilate, breath races, heartbeat goes crazy: in an instant, I’m a mere monkey with an iPhone, a poor cave-dweller with access to electricity, exhibiting all the signs of imminent, ancestral, life-threatening danger — at the thought of something that occurred last Tuesday.
My internal monologue consists of a single, urgent loop: How the fuck could you say that?
I attended a huge professional event recently. The kind where you navigate your way through rivers upon rivers of people, through the noises, smells, colours, the Brownian like motion, everything erratically ever-changing and constantly demanding attention. It’s amazing, don’t get me wrong, it’s just a lot. I definitely am grateful for the opportunity to have had the experience, and have come out of it mostly unscathed, with some serious industry insight and food for thought. People refer to this as ‘fun’ — and despite my weird brain, I agree.
But, again, sensory overload.
If you’ve ever experienced sensory overload, you know it can basically go two ways from there: you’re either melting on the inside being dragged around by a friend while looking like a zombie in nice shoes — or you revert to a toddler and you’re slightly pissed for no particular reason other than being tired and overstimulated. Or is that just my own experience with sensory overload?
In any case, I was doing the latter. I had had my fun, I had learned a ton of new stuff, and now I was so tired I wanted to curl into a ball on the floor and just nap for a couple of minutes, like toddlers. Having to nevertheless sit there and pretend to be a functional adult instead, felt impossibly complicated. In an effort to keep me going, my brain decides we need a dose of the ol’ range-inducing hormone. Just a hint. So, now I’m towards the end of an event, feeling happy with my experience, if a little jumpy for no discernible reason. I’m trying to just breathe.
The current speaker is experiencing a technical difficulty. He is an inexperienced speaker, introverted, doing his best, being quite good at it through his sheer excitement. I’m obviously rooting for him. He is pressed for time and the moderator is trying to gently but firmly see him off stage before he can finish making his case. It’s a technical hiccup. I happen to know what the problem is; I am entirely not-technical, so I can’t be sure-sure. I’m at the back of an immense room, separated from the speaker’s struggle by about 2000 people and an ocean of social anxiety, unable to fathom the notion of screaming loudly enough to be heard in that huge a space. And what if I’m heard, and I’m wrong?
A technician comes up on stage. She is not allowed much time to identify and fix the problem. Before I can mull anything over, it’s over. The speaker runs out of time and walks off the stage without having finished making his point.
I feel sort of sad, prone to thinking about how life forces us to never have time to bear with our fellow humans anymore, how everything is a rush we cannot avoid, and how one is compelled to either adapt to a life of racing or perish. I want to say something to my small group about how I can’t be the only one who knows that one technicality, why don’t people have time to help one another anymore, why didn’t I, myself, react, why are we all, myself included, inclined to pass on the responsibility and not act to help, what is wrong with everyone? What came out aloud was
I can’t be the only one who knows that. What is wrong with everyone?
I must insist I meant it all philosophically, in my head: where is the social interaction headed if we’re unwilling to spare the time to help one another, what are our values, what does it say about me that I failed to react myself, etc., etc. I was about to add much needed context to that as we were making our way out to another event happening, when it all got interrupted by life and it sort of got left off at that.
It sounded, well, stupid. Judgemental. Like I obviously meant what is wrong with everyone, why doesn’t everyone know this one stupid technicality. The thought of someone thinking I’m the type who will judge another for not knowing a technicality sends shivers down my spine, as I strongly aspire to not be that asshole.
It took me many, many hours to replay what I had blurted out and realise that nobody could have known my full thought process. I had no chance to avoid sounding insulting, because it was only hours later that my own bullshit played back to me and I realised that I had been. I dare hope no more than a handful of people heard my remarks, which were interrupted by the processions of life before I ever got a chance to add any context.
But I heard me.
Like that speaker who was prevented by a technicality from finishing his speech, I was prevented by life from finishing my philosophical tirade. At least, unlike me, he didn’t end up sounding like an asshole.
Eventually, I was of course forced to attempt to let go of my own mistake. Aka try to forgive myself and move on, while learning from this to never again start a philosophical rant with a poorly phrased punchline. You know, just in case it becomes all she wrote. Or maybe just not start a philosophical rant in public, period.
More importantly though, my slip-up got me thinking: when is it reasonable to forgo any benefit of a doubt and assume based on a single isolated remark that someone you know virtually nothing about is, nonetheless, an asshole? When does it stop being the other’s responsibility to keep an open mind and start being my responsibility to make sure I don’t come across as insulting? And how do you go about redeeming oneself once you realise you’ve let slip a social fuck-up? Write an apology letter to everyone who was within earshot at the time? Discommendation followed by reclaiming one’s dignity in honourable battle?
Mine is just an insignificant example that I have personally ruminated over, of course. If I’m lucky, that one isolated faux pas will not cost me my reputation, and those involved will not feel hurt by my mistake. If anything, it will serve to polish my impulsivity a little, for future reference.
But careers are lost over one tweet.
Don’t get me wrong, I’ve even felt strongly myself about some of the twitter wars out there. Yet I wonder: how much can we really know about a person based off of one isolated remark?
Once the social-lynching is triggered, the crowd never shows mercy. Not even when the person attempts an apology and retraction. We keep on going in with the torches and pitchforks, until one tweet becomes like that one bad tattoo you got on your neck while you were a teenager raging with hormones: ever-present, its mark upon you inescapable, its very existence a silent testament to not only who you have been, but also who you are today and who you could ever aspire to become.
In my anxious post-fact epiphany frenzy, I wondered whether someone recording the most recent speaker had caught my blurted, interrupted tirade while neglecting to turn off their recorder during break time. What if someone has accidentally captured me on audio saying there is something wrong with people for not knowing about a software setting? I didn’t even mean it like that, please, social-lynch-mob, have mercy.
While I do realise that the above particular case is, most likely, a mix of paranoia, perfectionism, and believing you’re the centre of the world and people actually listen to your bullshit, this is a pretty weird anxiety to have. This is a particularly new form of paranoia that neither of my anxiety-stricken grandmothers ever experienced. 50 years ago, anxiety was about reasonable shit: the inevitability of death; life’s inescapable misery; sickness and suffering. You know, not bloody twitter and being caught on the forever device while accidentally saying something stupid once. (And, in full disclosure, I’ve said a lot of stupider shit throughout my life than the above example — but growing a little older does help one with their choice of words, if only a little.)
This may all look like the mere neurosis of one weirdo, but I find that it is often in neurosis that we discover the most revealing mirrors to our current tropes as a society. And this lifelong-consequences-to-saying-something-stupid neurosis (am I seriously the only one?) points out that we are living in a society where things carry a lot of weight.
With social media ever-present, everything you say can be a bad visible tattoo you got in college. We love to lynch; we feel it gives us back a sense of justice and fairness to the world. But does it really? Is it fair to forever discriminate the job applicant who got that one bad visible tattoo 10 or 20 years ago? To forever deem someone an asshole based off one isolated bit of evidence to support such a conclusion?
I know neither where to draw the line, nor how to go about living with where other people choose to do so. But I do know that we’re all allowed to be human. To slip. Make mistakes. Say stupid shit, sometimes. I know it happens, and I know that’s fine, because language is often an imperfect conveyor of emotion and thought process. To live is to forgive and be forgiven for our imperfect humanity. And it’s okay if you struggle with your own humanity, too.
I do believe there is a cure for saying stupid shit out loud, sometimes: not having opinions; never talking about anything but the weather; not really caring passionately about anything you talk about.
Not having opinions is about the only way I know of, other than a vow of silence, to remain conversationally safe and sterile.
Having opinions, caring about the more intangible, ethical, or philosophical issues, it all means you’re going to have to face risky conversational territory.
Have an opinion regarding abortion, one way or the other? It’s offending someone. And that is even if you do manage to get said opinion across without it sounding in any way interpretable or vague. Same goes for LGBTQ+ rights, climate change, animal cruelty or the state of USA politics: having an opinion, regardless of what that opinion is, is going to piss at least some people off. Yet having strong opinions is a strong motivator, so long as you keep them open to new evidence.
So, you know, yeah: sometimes you’re going to say stupid shit if you care about the things you say. Because you’re emotionally involved, prone to even more bias and human error than you would’ve been if you didn’t give a fuck. And giving a fuck is good. It drives action to back up the shit you do manage to verbalise right. It enables you to take the chance and try saying it anyway, despite knowing you could fail, stand to be labelled an asshole, and be socially lynched by the mob. Giving a fuck is awesome, people should definitely give more fucks. About kindness, human values, climate change, minority rights, fair treatment of animals, and anything in-between that appeals to them beyond their immediate selves.
But giving a fuck also means accepting the humanity that comes with emotional involvement: bias, error, self-righteousness, impulsiveness. An inevitable unveiling of our limited humanity.
It counts for absolutely nothing, but you have my permission to say stupid shit, sometimes. Just make sure you do get out there. Be social, even if it’s scary. Go to that sensory-overload-triggering crowded event and try to actually relax and learn new stuff and have fun, even if you run the risk of saying something stupid. Go for that speaking opportunity, even if you may encounter a technical difficulty that prevents it from being 100%: people are only here for the 80% anyway. Speak your mind and take pride in changing your mind in the face of new evidence. Allow yourself to simply exist with the best of intentions, in knowing you could sometimes come across as an asshole, nonetheless.
We offend and hurt while harbouring the most honourable of intentions. We acknowledge it, rectify what we can and offer our sincere apologies whenever such is possible, and then do our best to move on.
We wear our mistakes with dignity, without the need to indulge in self-pitiful regret. Like a bad college neck tattoo that you own with your refined, adult wardrobe — and altogether it says I know what not to do, because I’ve done it, I’ve owned it, and have become better today as a result.
What other choice do we have? We cannot escape our humanity, so we might as well let our fuck-ups teach us to wear it gracefully.
No, really, am I the only one? Share your thoughts on social fuck-ups with me!
And, as ever, thank you for taking the time to be here. Stay safe, nerds.