There is a reason why topics like religion and politics are taboo for most informal gatherings where people have just met each other: you simply don’t know one another’s history. A subject that could be a passing fancy for one person could elicit deep, strong and even uncomfortable feelings from another.
In those situations, I wonder if the person who is the offendee ever stops to recognize the offender’s intent. The very nature of human emotion makes it nearly impossible for the offendee to even pause, once the emotional chords have been struck.
I think about this today after unintentionally offending someone I met last night. He is a professional musician; I seriously considered a career as a musician in high school and college, but decided against it for a number of reasons, chief among them my mother’s constant nagging that musicians just don’t make any money. So I approached the conversation with said musician with a lot of respect for his accomplishment.
“You actually get paid to play the oboe full-time,” I asked, a tone of amazement in my voice as I realized this guy seems to have a pretty comfortable life in expensive Washington, D.C., putting in his weekly 40-plus on the backside of a musical instrument. What a sweet life, I thought, to get paid for doing nothing more than feeding one’s own artistic passion.
The question plucked something that was lurking pretty deep in the guy’s head; he snapped back about how he was tired of people not giving him respect (whether it was because of him playing the oboe or working full-time as a military musician, I’ll never know). But as I thought about it later, it occurred to me that I had hit one of his hot-button issues, and that he didn’t have time to think about the context of my question. He simply reacted.
I don’t fault the guy, especially since I’ve spent the better part of five years trying to get one step ahead of my own head, only to fall into the same trap of emotionally charged, spontaneous reactions when someone hits one of my own buttons. If anything, what I have learned is to recognize when this happens in other people, and when put in the same situation, I hope to be able to see the response coming in myself in order to blunt it or eliminate it entirely.
It all goes back to mindfulness. If I am as mindful of what I say as I am of how people react to my words, then I’m in pretty good shape. Of course, wanting to be that mindful and actually doing it are two different things.