My flight was late, the cab got stuck in traffic and I was at risk of missing a critical meeting with a group of senior scientists that would have a significant impact on my career. I changed clothes rapidly in my hotel room and raced downstairs. In the hallway I ran into Professor Ken Maton, an old friend. He smiled at me and walked forward. Rather than giving me a hug or a handshake, he did what seemed a peculiar in-between gesture of patting me in the upper back while saying “Good to see you”. A few minutes into the meeting, a smile spread onto my face as the light bulb went off: In my haste to get dressed I must have flipped up my coat jacket collar. Rather than see me embarrassed in front of senior colleagues Ken had smoothed down my collar surreptitiously. He could have just told me to turn it down myself, but he didn’t want me to suffer even the mild embarrassment of knowing that a friend had observed me looking disheveled.
At a different time at a different hotel, a couple sat down at a booth near me in the half-empty restaurant. Either the Maitre d’ or the server of our section had clearly screwed up, because no one even stopped by their table for about 10 minutes. The woman suddenly stood up and yelled “What the $%&@ do we have do to get service in this *#@%&^ place!” Humiliated wait staff scrambled to her table, uttering apologies as they abased themselves before their angry customers.
When we make a mistake we put ourselves in others’ power. Some mistakes are so destructive that they are not easily forgiven or smoothed over, but many are like the examples above: Little stumbles on the road of life. In Michael O’Hare’s essay here on “class”, he wrote “One diagnostic of class is being comfortable, and making others comfortable, in any company.” Part of that virtue I think is being merciful towards, even unusually kind to, people who are vulnerable because they have made a mistake. But some people take the reverse approach of blasting and humiliating those who err, maybe out of self-importance (as if to imply that they never make errors themselves) and maybe because they have constant free-floating rage that they discharge at any remotely socially acceptable moment.
Blogging provides an ideal environment in which to observe how different people respond to mistakes. To blog is to err. Even the world’s two greatest English-language newspapers — the Economist and the New York Times — have typographical, grammatical and factual errors in every issue, despite their skilled copy editors, fact checkers and research departments. Most bloggers in contrast operate with no such safety net. They work alone and often write quickly. Blog posts are composed in loud coffee shops and on bumpy bus rides. Sometimes the dog is barking and the kids are yelling in the background. Or maybe the house is at last quiet, but it’s two in the morning when the drowsy blogger really ought to be in bed.
As a result, anyone can go on any blog, read for 15 minutes or less and find a mistake, sometimes a small one and sometimes a real doozy. I don’t find that in itself interesting because it’s universal and inevitable; what fascinates me as a psychologist is the variance in response to such errors among those who catch them. Some people for lack of a better word just “go off” in self-righteous fury like the woman in the restaurant. Others point out the error in the comments section or on their own blog with a sincere desire to educate (We are blessed with a lot of this community-building work at RBC). And others pull a Ken Maton, and email the blogger quietly and privately. I absolutely do not expect this, but it’s a classy move when it happens. This is therefore as good a time as any to say thank you Jay Livingston, I can’t believe I misspelled Akira Kurosawa either!