That's not what I meant

I can be a right idiot at times.

Those of you with long memories (and beards) may recall my embarrassment when, in the early, naive days of blogging, I mentioned the project I was working on in a blog post titled 'I hate my job.' A google search on that project name brought up my moaning as the first hit, which didn't go down too well with the project funders or my employer at the time. It didn't matter that I'd actually been quite positive about the project itself in my post - the problem was my inability to deliver the work - there was that title right up at number one on a search 'I hate my job.' Nothing else needed saying.

You won't find that original post in an archive search. I deleted it long ago, though I kept copies of it and the other ones that mentioned the project by name and so had to go. Since then I have been reasonably circumspect in my blogging and thought my lesson learned.

So I was a little surprised, and mortified, to find a message waiting for me on my facebook account from the son of one of my cousins. I check my facebook account so infrequently that I had missed this message for over two months, which probably means he thinks I am even more of an insufferably rude fellow than he did before writing the message. It concerns various comments I made on Twitter following the death in July of my Uncle, his grandfather, and how attending the funeral meant that I would miss the Harrogate Crime Writing Festival.

Twitter being the wonderful thing it is, I couldn't immediately see the message, but the tone of what my first cousin once removed quoted at me seemed plausible, if a little insensitive even for me. So I wrote him an apology and explanation. I often joke about serious situations with my friends, as a way to assure them that I am OK. With hindsight, I can see how someone stumbling upon my Twitter stream might misinterpret my words.

Then I discovered how to look up older tweets in the Twitter archive, and re-read the actual conversation I'd had. What I actually said was: 

'Alas I will no longer be attending #HarrogateCrime2011 this year. Instead I will be spending Saturday at the funeral of my uncle.'

Perhaps a bit formal? Maybes suggesting that really I'd rather be at Harrogate? You could read it that way, but it wasn't what I meant. In truth, I'd really rather my uncle wasn't dead, but there's not a lot I can do about that. Not unsurprisingly, the tweet had several responses from my friends expressing both sympathy for my loss and disappointment that we wouldn't get to meet up as planned. I responded to one of these with the following:

'@The_New_Mr_K Thanks Scott. It was on the cards, but it always comes as a shock. And what terrible timing. What was he thinking?'

Now I can see that sounds a little heartless and glib, especially to a young man who is following links in his search for information as he prepares to make a eulogy to his recently-dead and much-loved grandfather. It's only one half of the conversation, mind you. He's only read my tweets, not the messages sent to me. My uncle's death was not unexpected - he'd been fighting cancer for eight years and knew that the battle was lost. This much I have explained, and then I've added what to me is a jokey little aside to assure Scott that I'm fine. The very fact that I didn't attend the festival, instead drove all the way from Fife to Southampton and back to pay my respects to my uncle, should have been ample illustration of my sincerity. Unfortunately my first cousin once removed took it as moaning that I was being forced to attend the funeral against my will. To which I am tempted to ask 'by whom?'

Which brings me, haltingly, to the point of this post. I am at fault here, obviously. I've been glib and insensitive when discussing something with deep emotional resonance to some people, and I've done it in a place where they might conceivably come across my comments. I accepted this when challenged on it, put my hands up and apologised.

But is my first cousin once removed completely blameless in this? I've no doubt that his hurt was sincere, but I can't help thinking that it was also somewhat naive. As he admits at the beginning of his message, he doesn't know me. And yet he is swift to judge my words as he has interpreted them, without taking the time to try and clarify my meaning.

Words written on paper carry only half of the meaning of words spoken face to face, but they also carry twice as much. Letters, tweets, blog post and forum comments are all open to misinterpretation - a fact easily demonstrated by the trolling and flame wars that are all around the internet. Often these are born of a genuine difference of opinion, but probably more so it is simply down to one person taking someone else's written words the wrong way. I know this, and approach anything written down as potentially open to several different interpretations. I do not take offence easily as most often I do not think offence was intended. Of course, some people are offended by the very unintentionality of the offence*, but for them I fear there is little hope.

In this particular instance, my first cousin once removed hasn't stopped to think about context, or considered the difference in our ages and outlooks - he is in his early twenties and even if he had not wanted to attend the funeral would most likely have been forced to by his mother and grandmother. I am somewhat older and could very easily have made excuses for not attending that would have been acceptable to all concerned.

It is a truism that you should always stop and think before hitting 'send' on that irate email. Likewise you should consider that blog post or tweet - and the problem with twitter is it's all too easy to just blurt out any old rubbish and instantly forget it. Knowing that, however, I can't help thinking that anyone who reads anything on the internet should approach it with their eyes wide open, too. If people were less prone to jumping to conclusions, perhaps the world would be a better place.

* which is, of course, the very definition of bad manners. If you insult someone after careful deliberation, that is not bad manners. Insulting them without thought is. In this instance I have been guilty of a degree of thoughtlessness, which is very bad manners indeed. 


We all face this dilemma at some time. As writers, it seems that we are called upon to "tell the truth" and to "lie" simultaneously. Especially when we write of our own experience in relation to family.

I have found that the apology is important. Sincerity driving it, of course, with complete simplicity. "I am so sorry. I did not mean to offend you." Period.

My experience with this has in all ways been humbling and growth-worthy.

Thankyou for yet another great post.

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