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We are all Unintentional Assholes

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This was originally posted on The Pastry Box.


I was sitting on the bench in the locker room next to my roommate. We were talking fashion, of which I have no sense. To compensate, I related what a coworker with lots of fashion sense had told me just the day before: that no one should ever wear navy blue and black together. I stood up, turned around and saw a woman I had spent the previous hour with in plyometrics training, glaring at me.

She was in a navy blue and black business suit.

I was the unintentional asshole who just insulted her clothes.


I was talking with a friend, waiting for a third friend to arrive for lunch. We were talking about nothing much that I remember when the third friend plopped down in the chair between us, dropping a copy of Tales of the City on the table as he sat down. I looked at the book, then up at him, and asked, "Are you gay?"

He was. He is.

I was the unintentional asshole who just outed my friend before he chose to tell us.


I was standing in line for food at conference just last October. A friend of mine who had moved from Quebec to Toronto was telling a story about how the government worker at some Quebec government office refused to help him because he didn't speak French. One of the many reasons he moved, he said, the insulting French people. "As French people are!" I echoed, as I turned to see one of the the nicest, sweetest women I knew standing in line behind him.

She's French Canadian.

I was the unintentional asshole who just called her, her whole family, and her culture, insulting.

In none of these moments, admittedly small in the grand scheme of things, was I deliberately a jerk. I was repeating, clarifying, and agreeing. All potentially positive actions. And yet, in each case I was definitely an asshole. Unintentionally to be sure, but an asshole none-the-less.

I'm in good company: we are all unintentional assholes.

For the most part, we don't mean to be such jerks. Sometimes we're just lost in our view, in our desire to fit in, in our distractions of modern life, in our own world. We're blind and don't see the results of our actions. And we aren't aware necessarily how our actions are going to be interpreted, much less how they might interpreted absent any context. We blurt out things. We say things to agree with those around us. We have our cultural biases that were learned so subtly we don't realize we even have them. We have our own space and react to protect it.

In all of this, we aren't out to hurt the other person. We aren't trying to make the other person look bad. We aren't trying to thwart a coworker's progress. We aren't trying waste someone else's time. We aren't trying to be condescending. We aren't choosing to be biased in a way that alienates a culture, a gender, a sexuality, or choice.

And yet we do it all the time.

When called out, however, we can choose not to be defensive.

In that moment of assholery realization, whether from the silence after the faux pas when everyone stares at us, or from the moment of reflection later when we realize our mistake, or from someone actually calling us out on the hurt of our words, we can choose to listen.

We can choose to correct for that moment, to reflect, to apologize, to stop, to be aware for the next time.

We can choose not to be an unintentional asshole.