Imagine my surprise last evening when despite having said eight times, "I’m sorry" did not placate the individual who was upset by a verbal slight earlier. That an off hand remark could cause someone so much anguish was news to me — particularly because this was in a professional context and what I had said was not an insult but merely a conclusion based on miscommunication.
For a moment during this protracted back and forth I was angry at the fact my company doesn’t have anyone but me to fall back. I was very aware of my own frailty and the reason why teams of one — although at times productive — are never a good idea. I roasted in my own guilt because the individual was so upset his eyes were teary, his connection to logic undermined, and his blatant refusal to accept my apology underscored by his insistence that he was insulted.
I ran it through my mind a couple of times. What else could I have done? Nothing, besides having kept my mouth shut in the first place which is always a hindsight is 20/20 mind numbing moment.
"Loose lips sink ships," my father said often during my childhood, a lover of cliches.
Truly rattled I shared the incident in private with another individual at the event, puzzling out what else I could have offered.
"They would have never brought it up if you weren’t Indian," she said, a fellow Indian, like me, like the two men in question. Her comment was a crystallizing moment for me because I knew that there was something else going on during the twenty minutes we tried to resolve the perceived insult that I couldn’t quite get my finger on.
This morning, another friend, an Australian this time, confirmed the prior night’s diagnosis. And I realized how trapped we can be by our cultural expectations, whether we want to or not, whether we acknowledge them or not.
I kept reflecting because I couldnt’ let this one go. The men had been just too upset – as though I had questioned their faithfulness to their religion. Gender could have been a possible added layer: they were male, I was female. My offhand comment may not have been the issue at all but the timing of it: he approached me in front of a table of women and I had said "You’re late."
This was the offending phrase because he wasn’t late, apparently, but thirty minutes early according to the time I’d advertised but unbeknownst to me, on time according to someone else’s request. Twenty minutes of apologies later, he would not be assuaged and I nothing left to say (which I said as much).
I gave them two options: accept the apology, or move on. Really it was a combo offer, I suppose.
They did neither – they left.
For the future I will both keep my mouth shut and also make sure we are clear as to what time people are expected to show up.