Perception, illusion and hate mail

A couple weeks ago I received an angry email from someone I don’t know, chiding me for a comment I made on a blog (not their blog) and accusing me of being “rude and mean.” I have to admit, this is not the first time I’ve received such an email. I doubt it will be the last. Sigh. You’d think I would have learned to shrug it off by now. But this one was different in that I’ve never before been accused of being “mean.” It upset me badly. It hurt my feelings. It made me want to never say anything to anyone in public ever again, if I could be so horribly misjudged.

“You have enemies? Good. It means you’ve stood up for something, sometime in your life.” -Churchill

It also made me think about how people “see” me and how that differs from how I see myself. Which view is true? What carries more weight, the intentions behind the words or their effect on others? Never mind the fact that if I ever did decide to say something mean, I sure as hell wouldn’t do it in public. Anyone who earns my wrath deserves a bit of privacy. But if someone saw me as being “mean” and was upset enough to tell me about it, does it matter that I wasn’t trying to be mean, that I don’t think of myself as a mean person?

I’m not sure I know the answer to that. I do know that being misunderstood is one of the hazards of communication, especially written communication. Adding the subjective element of humour — especially dry sarcastic humour, as is often the case with my commentary — just increases the odds of words being taken the wrong way.

“Everything we hear is an opinion, not a fact. Everything we see is a perspective, not the truth.” -Marcus Aurelius

This isn’t about whether people “like” me. I know there will always be people who don’t. Probably a lot of people. I’m fine with that. I can’t think of anyone who I’d say I hate, that’s too strong, but certainly there are people I don’t particularly care for. That’s normal. Frankly, I’d be a bit concerned if I were universally loved. Or hated. This is about being misunderstood.

As a writer, part of my job is to make myself understood, to communicate clearly. Being confronted with such a huge disconnect between what I thought I’d said and what someone else heard was disturbing. And yes, it also stung my vanity.

So what is the solution? Is there one, short of hermitage? People approach the world with their own individual experiences and biases and opinions. In many cases, they hear what they expect or want to hear and no amount of argument will convince them otherwise.

I could filter and analyze every word with the utmost care, scrupulously edit each utterance for clarity and single-minded purpose. But I’d lose spontaneity and creativity. And stifle my voice. Taking that much care, being that concerned about being misunderstood, that mindful of what others think would chip away at my self-confidence until I was unable to write at all. I’m not willing to do that. Plus, quite honestly, I don’t think it would work.

“What other people think of you is none of your business.” –Unknown

So I guess I have to toughen my hide. Learn to hit the “delete” key on my inbox and convince myself not to feel bad about it. Everyone is entitled to an opinion. They are not entitled to my reaction to it.

I’ve got a ways to go before I’m completely convinced of that. It feels too much like I’m being mean.

Thank you to @LisaKenney for (unwittingly) providing two of the quotes above via twitter.

16 Comments

Filed under deep thoughts, reader opinion

16 responses to “Perception, illusion and hate mail

  1. Not joking here! Don’t read any emails after supper. It helps.

    And discussions with irrational people just don’t work. Why? ‘Cause they’re irrational, and can’t reason (duh) rationally.

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  2. “Mean” is the new “Pink,” or maybe it’s the new “Thirty”. I don’t know, why did you ask me? Wait, you didn’t, forget that last part.

    As someone who not only is mean but also takes great pleasure in it ( Why take my word for it, just ask my teenage daughter…) I believe that mean is highly underrated and there should be more of us Meanies. Why? Because then people might get a grip and understand that 1) it’s not all about them, 2) Barney the Purple Dinosaur was wrong and filled children’s heads lits lots of lies and, 3) there is a reality out there that many people had hid from them and are only now starting to see. (Rule #1, No life is not fair, get used to it and quit trying to sue everyone about it.)

    “Mean’, by the way, is really a perception. What someone else sees as “Mean” another might perceve as “Truth”. And yes, Truth is Mean. But it’s also true.

    Unless, of course, you’re just making stuff up to be mean.

    (call me if you do that and I’ll bring a beach chair and a B.A.G.O.W. & watch.)

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  3. McB

    Some people are just looking for an excuse to complain. They have boreal life so the fill up the emptiness with Unrighteous indignation. Hit the delete key, have a swig of alcohol and goget ’em. They want to be remembered, so dismissing them entirely is the worse thing you can do to them.

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  4. I once had a coworker jump on me for using the word “ain’t.” She said it offended her. My response: “If the sender intends no offense, but offense is taken, then the responsibility lies solely with the recipient.”

    I’ve not experienced anything in my life to make me believe that’s not correct.

    So, say what you will as clearly as you possibly can, and if they don’t get it, screw ’em.

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  5. me

    There’s a saying, something along the lines of “You can please some of the people all of the time, and all of the people some of the time, but not all of the people all of the time.” Or something like that. So, no matter how nice you try to be, someone somewhere will find reason to take offense. And, as McB said, some people just like to complain. Makes them feel important. Especially when it’s so easy and fairly anonymous on the Internet. I’m sorry she/he made you feel bad.

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  6. McB

    It also occurred to me, but it was too early in the a.m. to properly formulate, that said person didn’t have the guts to comment on the same blog that they had a problem with what you said. No, that would have been a public declaration and open for criticism and disagreement. An email kept her out of the public light, which means in addition to being petty and mean, said person is also a coward.

    You’re much nicer than I am so you probably won’t do this, but in your shoes I would have made a statement on that blog that “person x has an issue with my earlier comment and sent me a hate filled email saying “insert quote here.” Person X tried to keep her meanness private, make her publicly own her words.

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  7. Lou

    “I could filter and analyze every word with the utmost care, scrupulously edit each utterance for clarity and single-minded purpose.”

    It wouldn’t matter if you did that until your eyes and brain bled. Someone, somewhere would still take offense. IMO, it’s the people who have a negative outlook on life who seem to be most easily offended. I believe they look to be offended to justify their negative outlook. There isn’t anything you can do about that unless you wish to become a hermit.

    Also what Jeff said…

    And McB’s comment about her being a coward… too true!!

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  8. I have some very wise (and rather fiercely fearless) friends.

    It’s hard to acknowledge exactly how vulnerable I feel sometimes, putting myself out there in the world. I think that’s what this comes down to. It doesn’t take much to make me doubt myself and my abilities. To hand over power to the people who say, “You suck.”

    I like to think I’m pretty tough when it comes to criticism of my (fiction) writing — I’ve been edited all my life and that doesn’t bother me. It’s when the barbs are directed at me personally that I sort of shrivel up and wonder whether they’re right and maybe I do need to STFU and go away.

    Maybe I should practice daily affirmations or something. And not read email after dinner (maybe while I’m sleeping would be good). And sell tickets to public smackdowns . . . Nah. Not going to give them the satisfaction of engaging.

    Thanks, guys. I have a feeling I’ll come back here more than a few times to re-read this advice.

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  9. For some reason, communication via the Internet tends to make people read things into your comments that aren’t actually there on the screen. And I think honesty can come across as ‘rude and mean’ to people who are used to only being told soothing lies.
    It’s good for them to read an opposing point of view once in awhile. Reminds them that they’re not alone in the universe.

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  10. Merry, this was more along the lines of one of those extremely sarcastic offhand comments I make sometimes (like, for instance, on your blog) and I mean pretty much the opposite of what I said. Someone apparently took it at face value (I’m not really sure if that was the case) and was offended. The kind of thing where I usually just shake my head and think, “Do you really know so little about me?”

    So yeah, I do feel somewhat culpable. Because if you really don’t know anything about me, well, I guess I sound… rude and mean.

    Oh hell.

    You know, it just occurred to me that the only people who always get my humour, every single time, and never mistake it for anything else are my sisters. If anything, they’re even worse than I am when it comes to sarcasm. Hmmm. Somehow this makes me feel ever so much better.

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  11. McB

    Well, even back in the basement days when I didn’t know you, I never assumed you were rude and mean. And you should remember at times like this that there are approx 30 people out there who “get” you. I really think the odds are in your favor here.

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  12. McB

    And why do people always assume offense is meant? Why would anyone want to live that way?

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  13. Thanks, everyone, for all the supportive words.

    I resolve to put it all firmly behind me and move on.

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  14. Theresa

    Ok, coming to this over a week late, I have nothing wise or meaningful to say that hasn’t already been said.

    So hey, happy thought! Look at how many pretty flags you now have over there on the right showing your visitors!

    Seriously? One of the reasons I don’t put myself out there more is because of this kind of thing. I got slammed on one of my initial forays into the internet (a newsgroup way back shortly after I graduated from college). I’ve been thinking about this more lately, and think I just need to toughen up. And really, most of the people who we interact out there with think that we are lovely or at least interesting people. We shouldn’t let one or two sour ducks spoil our fun.

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  15. kit

    Hi,
    just wanted to let you know, I read the blog and I did use the winston churchill quote on a social site…I thought it was a good one.
    been upset by louise’s post…I don’t feel anyone has the right to do that to another person, but that is just me.

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  16. Hi, Kit! Thanks for stopping by. I was upset by Louise’s post too. Very disturbing that people have so much bottled up anger and hatred, and seem to think it’s appropriate to unleash it on complete strangers.

    I’m trying to keep in mind that it has more to do with them than with me.

    And Theresa, I can not imagine you ever saying anything offensive. I’m sorry that happened to you. Completely unwarranted.

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