Sunday, February 6, 2011

No Offense

I  have a problem understanding being offended. Don’t get me wrong; I am not a sunny natured person who sails through life  with never a negative emotion. I understand being angry, in all degrees, from mild frustration through the kind of fury that leaves you thinking, “Yeah, but then where would I hide the body?” I understand feeling hurt, too and I realize that anger and hurt are big components of feeling offended. It’s just that there seems to be something else, something I can’t quite identify, that changes hurt and angry into offended. I’m like the person sitting in a restaurant, tasting an unusual dish and trying to figure out what that elusive spice is that makes all the difference.

A therapist I know says that all anger stems from hurt. I’m not entirely sure of that. I think anger comes from fear - the fear of being hurt, not emotionally, but physically. Anger is part of our system of self-defense, one that we share with the rest of the animal kingdom. When a mama bear attacks you for getting too close to her cub, though, I’m not sure you can say that she was offended. She was just taking care of mama bear business. 

I think of situations in which I might have felt offended. I can think of two recent ones, both of which occurred at work shortly before I retired. As I have mentioned before, I worked with some difficult children. One of them was a five year old with a mental and emotional age of around three and a real problem with impulse control. One day I had him sitting  in a chair with a tray (to prevent escapes) and was trying to get him to follow some simple directions with his favorite toys. He was screaming at the top of his lungs because I wouldn’t let him play by throwing the toys. A coworker knocked at the door and said my boss asked if I could please get him to be quiet because our boss was on the phone and the child could be heard.

Okay, now let’s run through the pertinent points. I’m the one with my ears about a foot from the screaming child. If I had some magic way of calming him down, I assure you, I would have applied it without being asked. So I guess I was offended, briefly, but I was mostly amused. You have to admit, that’s funny. Everyone I tell the story to sees the funny side immediately, except maybe my boss. I wonder if I had told her how funny I thought her request was if she would have been offended.

The other incident occurred at our Christmas lunch, which was also my farewell appearance the day before I retired. We drew names every year for “Secret Santa”, and I wound up sitting next to the person whose name I drew. She had wanted a gift certificate to a party store because she bakes cakes as a hobby and they have a good selection of specialty cake pans. I bought her the gift certificate, and put it in a small decorative box, like a hat box, with a few truffles from a specialty candy store.

Coworker proceeds to tell me that she had been asked if she could bake a cake for me but she didn’t have any recipes that weren’t chocolate and I don’t like chocolate*, so she couldn’t. Uhm, okay. Why tell me this, I wonder. It’s not like I was sitting there going, “What, no cake?”

The thing is, when I ask myself something like “Why tell me this?”, it’s not a rhetorical question. I think about a possible answer. This coworker is a friendly, kind person as a rule and we haven’t had any run-ins. She is, however, the mother of two young children with a full-time job and this was right before Christmas. I’m sure her spare time was taken up with shopping, decorating, taking kids to see Santa, explaining for the fortieth time just how many more days until Christmas and wishing she was on her own private island. She didn’t have time to bake a cake, and I don’t blame her for saying “no”. 

I suspect when presented with the gift that I had taken extra time to wrap and make look special (not having two young kids and being free to do stuff like that) she felt a little wistful, and wanted to explain about the cake she didn’t bake, and unfortunately the resentment she felt at being asked when there are perfectly good bakeries around town made itself apparent without her meaning it to.  That’s just the sort of social klutziness I am prone to, so I feel for my fellow sufferers. 

So I’m still no closer to understanding being offended than when I started. My efforts seem to dissolve into amusement, or problem solving, or reflections on whether social tact and social klutziness are inherited, like curly hair. Besides, I'm thinking about cake. I just heard my husband saying something about buying a king cake. I hope he's not offended if I take a slice.

*Actually, I love chocolate, but for medical reasons, I am not supposed to eat it.

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