Tonight’s episode of the Style Network reality show Tia & Tamera forced me to reflect on a controversial question that I have been wanting to pose for a while now: “If I offend you, is that really my fault?”
In tonight’s episode, Tia & Tamera decide to see a therapist to discuss the problems that arise from their “communication issues.” (In case you don’t watch the show, they tend to have a lot of those issues–so many that watching them sometimes messes up my childhood delusion of their twin ESP and perfect sisterly psychic bond.) The shrink asks Tia & Tamera to do a role playing exercise to illustrate how each one thinks her sister behaves, in order to understand how each one perceives the actions of the other and how her actions makes the other feel.
In Tamera’s demonstration, she reveals that she thinks that Tia can be aggressive and confrontational. Tamera also feels that Tia sometimes misunderstands her attempts to help her as Tamera passing judgment on her. Both women admit that Tia is the more blunt and direct twin, while Tamera tries to avoid confrontation and can come off as dismissive to Tia when she does not address situations as openly and directly as Tia would like. (I sincerely love, admire, and respect them both, and I have since I was a little girl, but I honestly think that they can both be overly sensitive and annoying at times.)
At the end of the show they conclude that each one should try to assume the best about the other one when she attempts to communicate and that Tia, in particular, should try to begin her conversations with more positive affirmations. Still, at the end of the episode, I found myself hoping that the audience was not being shown the full session or that the sessions will continue and we will see more of them next week, because I felt like they focused primarily on how Tia makes Tamera feel and how Tia should respond differently.
We see Tia feeling guilty about the realization that she makes her sister feel “small” and deciding to do something to make Tamera feel supported, but no one ever addresses how basically being characterized as attitudinal and defensive may be a misrepresentation or an oversimplification of Tia’s identity.
Like most people, I’ve been on both sides of the scenarios that Tia & Tamera find themselves in during that therapy session–the offended and the offender, the misunderstood and the misinterpreter. Just as Tamera thought she was helping while Tia felt judged, a friend once told me that I’d hurt her feelings when my only intention was to give her honest advice. I remember being completely dumbfounded (and rather annoyed) that she had completely misinterpreted what I had said –which, ironically, reminds me of another situation.
I recently got upset with a friend of mine after he tweeted something that I felt was offensive. When I confronted him about it, he engaged my argument for a little while before claiming that what I thought he meant was actually not what he had meant at all, and I had a bit of deja vu.
Granted, my perception of the Tia & Tamera episode and its lack of balance may or may not be due more to editing than to anything else. Yet, watching it made me think of some situations that I have been in myself, which brings me back to my original question–because I know you probably forgot it, but I didn’t. “If I offend you, without knowing I am offending you or intending to do so, that is, is that really my fault?” Are individuals responsible for another person’s interpretations and/or misinterpretations of their actions and/or intentions? And if so, who, when, and to what extent?
My degree is in English, not psychology, but experience has taught me that many times when people are offended, their reaction has very little to do with the actual actions or intentions of the offender. I know exactly why my friend’s tweet (or my interpretation of it) offended me–the perpetuation of a negative stereotype, my own grappling with that stereotype, and his status as an important person in my life (only people who matter to me truly have the power to offend me). My reaction had more to do with the emotions that his action brought up in me than with anything else because it was not his intention to offend me. This doesn’t mean that his action was a wise one or that I agree with it; however, my reaction was not entirely his fault.
For example, if I suggest that you try my lotion, do I just like the way it smells or am I secretly hinting that you’re ashy? The way you interpret that may have more to do with your feelings about yourself than with anything else. Although sometimes it can be a little of both, oftentimes, it’s not the what of an action that hurts us, it’s the why ( what kind of response it triggered and why)–and that is what I think individuals should discuss and attempt to work on.
Now, if you’re my friend, and I know that you have a skin problem and that you’re insecure about it, it makes sense for me to be considerate of that fact before I offer you lotion (unless I think I’m helping, in which case you should tell me I offended you, and I would apologize for doing so unintentionally). Otherwise, it’s not fair for someone to unwittingly be held responsible for someone else’s raw emotions or insecurities, be they secret or known. Oftentimes, this is what happens.
From that perspective, is Tia really abrasive or is Tamera just really sensitive? If Tamera has a problem with Tia’s direct approach but Tia is not trying to offend her, whose responsibility is it to adjust? Is it anyone’s? Regardless of how unpleasant they may be, assuming that they are not causing you any direct harm, is it fair to ask someone to change their nature just because it makes you uncomfortable? Or as I said before, is the more important question why it makes you uncomfortable? (For the record, I’m just using Tia &Tamera to illustrate a point, not to weigh in on their lives.)
This is not to say that no one is ever responsible for the way that his or her words or actions makes someone else feel. The burden of consideration can vary depending on the relationship between individuals, the context, and lots of other factors. However, sometimes the distribution of blame can be misplaced or uneven and this imbalance can inhibit the real progress that can take place when we admit the motivations and emotions behind our reactions. Yet, sometimes the line between politeness and self-expression can be blurry, a sense of confusion that can extend from mundane arguments between friends to culturally insensitive scandals. (Just as there can be a thin line between a joke and an insult between sisters, what is funny to one person may be racist to another.)
So, who is responsible for our feelings?