Imagine for a moment that you are going to a coffee shop with a friend to grab a lovely caffeinated beverage to indulge in for the day. You don’t know me, but as you are walking in, I am walking out, and I end up spilling my beverage all over you.
Understandably, you are a bit shocked, and a bit upset.
As you stand there with your now wet, and most likely stained shirt, you use a few choice words to communicate your emotions. Perhaps something like an emotionally charged, “Excuse me?!”
And my response? “Oh! I didn’t mean to bump into you! That was never my intent! I was just trying to leave the coffee shop!”
You are still upset, you demand an apology. But I refuse. After all, it was not my intent to spill my drink on you. In fact, my day is now just as ruined as yours because now I have to either repurchase my $5 drink or go without. This is just as bad for me.
Sound a bit absurd? Of course it does. We all may understand that a clumsy mistake like this would of course be faced with embarrassment, shock, remorse, and apologies. And yet, there are so many scenarios where the response should be just as clear, and yet are just as absurd.
Intent vs Impact
From Paula Dean to Alec Baldwin to your annoying, bigoted coworker, we hear it over and over again: “I never meant any harm”, “It was never my intent”, “I am not a racist”, “I am not a homophobe”, “I am not a sexist”.
People often attempt to deflect criticism about their language or actions by keeping the conversation focused on their intent. As long as the conversation is focused on their intent, they don’t have to face the reality of the impact.
But at the end of the day, what does the intent really matter if the impact only leads to hurting those around us?
If I say something that hurts my partner, it doesn’t matter whether I intended the statement to mean something else – because my partner is hurting.
If I make a joke in a meeting that offends my coworker, it doesn’t matter that my intent was meant as just a joke – because my coworker is offended.
If I am flirting with someone and they start to feel uncomfortable with my advances, it doesn’t matter that I was only intending to communicate interest – because I have made them feel unsafe.
I need to listen to how my language affects people. And I need to apologize when my intent doesn’t have the desired impact. Then I need to reflect and empathize to the best of my ability so that I don’t do that again.
It sounds simple, but our identities are so intertwined with our intent, and in turn so are our privileges and experiences. So when we start interacting with people who are different from us – gender, skin color, economic status, religious backgrounds – our negative impacts start to have an emotional charge to them.
Suddenly we aren’t just apologizing for our impact, but for our backgrounds and our identities. Sometimes when we are well intended but our impact has such a large disparity, we feel like our entire worldview is being challenged.
Think about the #MeToo Movement and how every woman has a story about being sexually harassed. There were two fairly common responses from men when they realized the full scope of the problem.
One: shock, horror, and remorse. They realized that this is actually a major problem, that women’s lives are impacted daily, and that they may even be contributing to it more than they realized. They reflected, asked questions, and changed their actions. They realized actions they thought were harmless were making women uncomfortable, that jokes they thought were hilarious were actually offensive, that there were small simple changes they could make with their intentions to completely change their impact on the women around them.
Two: dismiss and downplay. They aren’t doing anything wrong, women are just too sensitive and need to lighten up. It doesn’t matter how many women are saying it or how many ways women are saying it, some men are just going to refuse to acknowledge the impact, because they believe their intentions excuse that.
Privilege and Intent
This is why listening is so important. We all come from different backgrounds and have a different mess of life experiences influencing our intentions. And often time, the privilege of our circumstance can shield us from understanding the impact of our actions.
For example, I am white. As much as I may try, I will never fully understand the oppression that goes into being anything other than a white person. I will inevitably use language that is oppressive or dismissive or shows clear lack of understanding, even with the best of intentions. Because my background isn’t paved with the same abuse and oppression that a non-white person faces every day.
And while my intentions to be sensitive, inclusive, progressive, and kind may help me sleep at night, there will come a day when I inevitably say something that does not reflect those intentions. And when that moment comes, the impact will overshadow my intentions.
What we need to understand is that focusing conflicts on our intentions is inherently a privileged action.
Why? Because that ensures that your identity (and intent) stay at the center of the conversation, that your identity is dominant. Meanwhile the impact of your actions is dismissed. It changes the conversation from being about what you did, to making it about who you are.
Just because you did something sexist doesn’t mean that you are sexist. Just because you said something racist doesn’t mean that you are a racist.
When your actions, your impact, is called into question, it’s important to understand that that’s all that is being called into question – your actions, not your overall character. If the impact of your intentions is furthering oppression, then that is all that matters.
So Now What?
Intention is not the same as impact. You don’t get a free pass on hurting people just because it wasn’t your intention to do harm. So we need to listen, reflect, apologize, and work to do better in the future.
What does that look like, you may be asking? Well, let’s start with an actual apology.
I think we can all agree that when someone “apologies” with something like, “I’m sorry you feel that way, but I never intended to spill coffee on you” we feel less than satisfied. In fact, I would argue that apologies like that do nothing but escalate a conflict.
Whether it’s Paula Deen weeping on TV, Alec Baldwin asking us to simply trust that he’s not a homophobe, or your coworker telling you to lighten up because he was just joking, those are not apologies.
When we are told the impact of our actions, inactions, words were hurtful, we start by apologizing without any caveats. Apologize earnestly, and take responsibility for your impact.
From there we can do our best to move forward by acting more accountably.