If I talk or write long enough, I’ve concluded, I’m going to say accidentally something that I didn’t mean to say. I don’t mean that my words will suggest a double entendre, which nine times out of ten only causes everyone to laugh. I mean that what I say will have implications that I didn’t intend, or will be interpreted in a way that I never meant them. No matter how hard I try, sooner or later I’m going to slip and embarrass myself.
The first of these situations that I can recall happened shortly before Trish and I married. We were sitting with a mixture of friends and strangers in the pub at Simon Fraser University. Naturally, the talk turned to the possibility of children. I said that one of the reasons that I wanted to work from home after I graduated was that I thought that toddlers would benefit from having a parent at home.
I got up to get another round of drinks, and, when I returned, a woman who had arrived when I was speaking was blasting me for being a sexist. With Trish’s help, I managed to convince the woman that I was not talking about female social roles, but my own.
However, for the rest of the evening, my cheeks could have served as neon lights at the thought that anyone – even a stranger – could have imagined that I was expressing views so foreign to my actual ones.
Another cringe-worthy moment happened when I was teaching a first year composition class to a class with a large proportion of foreign students. I got on well with the class, and I often bantered with the students.
Just before the start of a class, I heard one Asian student complaining about staying up late the previous night to finish the assignment that was due that day. “Oh, you people have it easy,” I said.
By “you people,”I meant “students.” But as an awful silence fell and students started to stare at me, I realized that what people were hearing was “Asians.”
With nightmare visions of official accusations of racism scrabbling around in my head, I quickly added, “You students don’t know when you’re well off.” To my relief, everybody immediately relaxed, and the moment passed without ever being mentioned again. But after that, I was considerably more careful about what I said in class.
In fact, for a couple of decades I was successful enough in watching what I said that I managed to forget such incidences were possible. There was the time that I remarked, “small world,” to a dwarf I kept meeting at the elevators of the Skytrain, but I only realized what I had said afterward, and he didn’t seem to have taken my words as a joke at his expense.
Then, a few days ago, another one happened.
I had just finished a biography of Ada Lovelace, the first computer programmer and colleague of Charles Babbage. As you may know, she was the daughter of Lord Byron and Annabella Millbank. She was raised entirely by her mother, who fled Lord Byron’s sexual abuse and mental cruelties and divorced him.
I have always had a great deal of sympathy for Millbank. Any of Byron’s victims might be pitied, but as an infatuated innocent, Millbank must have suffered more than anyone else would have under his treatment.
However, after reading how Millbank continually tried to control her daughter, right to her dying day, I developed a strong distaste for her as well. Tweeting comments about the biography, I said, “I wonder if there were two sides to the divorce of Lord & Lady Byron.”
Shortly afterward, a colleague objected to the comment. My first reply was, “Not saying that Lady B. wasn’t right to divorce. Lord B. was impossible. But her treatment of Ada suggests she was a control freak.”
Another protest followed. I realized that, in attempting to express sympathy for Lovelace, I was minimizing Byron’s cruelties by suggesting that aggravating but commonplace behavior was just as bad.
I’ve done it again, I thought, and admitted that I’d been too flippant. Perhaps Millbank’s self-righteous evangelism would have been irksome to Byron and to many other men as well, but that can’t possibly justify his rapes and sadism – and, put that way, I had to agree that I had implied something I had never intended to say.
Later, I told the colleague that they were quite right to call me on the comment, and I believe the apology was accepted.
However, the embarrassment – the utter chagrin – lingers. I suppose three or four mistakes of this kind in as many decades isn’t the worst possible record. Some political leaders make as many slips in a single ten minute speech.
But the memories aren’t comfortable ones, all the same. Remembering them, I almost don’t want to write or speak at all. Like many writers, I’m overly-fond of sarcasm and flippancy, and, if I’m not careful, being pithy sometimes matters more to me than being accurate or thinking of implications. As a result, the possibility of another episode is always there.
But not speaking would be cowardly (to say nothing of impossible for someone like me). Anyway, I can imagine situations where silence could be as damning as speaking.
As a result, I’ve decided that, while I plan to watch what I say, some misunderstandings are inevitable. In fact, my determination to avoid them just might make me nervous enough that they become more common.
However, I have decided that, the next time I find myself in such a situation, I will explain what is happening as soon as possible. An apology is embarrassing in itself – but not nearly as embarrassing as being wrong, or branded in someone else’s mind as sexist or racist because of a few poorly chosen words.
Even with an apology, I suspect that some people will say that my original words are a Freudian slip that reveals what I really think. But I can only deal with my imperfections as best I can.