A couple brief exchanges recently have reminded me not to over interpret a passing comment.
First, at a friends’ house this past weekend:
The husband looking at a take-out menu remarked that the same deli ran the lunch counter in his office building. He added:
I know that now that I am working in Conshohocken office.
The husband had hit a hot-button issue for them. They had recently agreed that the husband would work part-time out of the home office and part-time in the office. He preferred to work from home. She didn’t like to have his co-workers traipsing through her house. Both reasonable positions. The husband’s comment might or might not have been innocuous. I heard it as a sort of “Oh look, I know this deli.” The wife heard something like “Oh look, I know this deli because I have to go into the office on a regular basis instead of working in my home office.”
The wife spun around to retaliate. I caught her eye and mouthed the word “Shhhh.” When the wife and I were chatting the next day, she admitted that not saying anything had been the best response. She couldn’t know how he had intended the comment and no good would have come from pouncing on him for it.
Second, in my office the other morning:
The Mother forwarded me an email about #1’s upcoming appointment. She appended to the top of the message:
Don’t forget to take #1 to his appointment this Thursday.
This is a sensitive issue for me. I feel that I bear the burden of taking #1 and #2 to their appointments (who actually bears familial burdens varies, no doubt, with whom you ask and what you consider a burden, as I’ve suggested before). I often make those appointments and keep track of them. I have never missed one. I don’t need to be pestered.
I instinctively reached for the keyboard to send a terse reply, but then paused. Nothing in the Mother’s note suggested she was trying to needle me. I took a deep breath and sent, instead, a note thanking her for the reminder.
We’ve all been there. Somebody says something that recalls for us a contentious issue, a sore subject, an un- or maybe a resolved dispute. We feel attacked. We “defend” ourselves. Suddenly the passing comment has become the opportunity to dredge up and reanimate some quarrel. Perhaps my friend’s husband is annoyed and used his comment to express that displeasure. Perhaps the Mother thinks I’m an absentminded bumpkin who needs frequent reminders. But assuming they were goading us reveals more about our own insecurities than it does about their intentions.
We might all be happier if we extend a little interpretive generosity and assume, until evidence suggests the contrary, that our partners, our friends, our interlocutors in general are not baiting us.