apologies

Manipulative fake apologies

Some apologies amount to someone asking for permission to keep doing something bad.

  • These apologies generally shouldn’t be accepted.
  • (But it can be really hard not to, because who want permission to do bad things tend to lash out when they don’t get it.)
  • (If you have to accept a bad apology to protect yourself, it’s not your fault.)

Eg:

  • Moe: “I’m sorry, I know this is my privileged male opinion talking but…”
  • Or, Moe: “I’m sorry, I know I’m kind of a creeper…” or “I’m sorry, I know I’m standing too close but…”
  • At this point, Sarah may feel pressured to say “It’s ok.”
  • If Sarah says, “Actually, it’s not ok. Please back off” or “Yes, you’re mansplaining, please knock it off”, Moe is likely to get angry.
  • The thing is, it’s not ok, and Moe has no intention of stopping. 
  • Moe is just apologizing in order to feel ok about doing something he knows is wrong.

Another example:

  • Sam is a wheelchair user. He’s trying to get through a door.
  • Mary sees him and decides that he needs help.
  • Mary rushes to open the door. As she does so, she says “Oh, sorry, I know I’m supposed to ask first”, with an expectant pause. 
  • At this point, Sam may feel pressured to say “It’s ok”, even if the ‘help’ is unwanted and unhelpful. 
  • If Sam says, “Yes, you should have asked first. You’re in my way. Please move”, Mary is likely to get angry and say “I was just trying to help!”.
  • In this situation, Mary wasn’t really apologizing. She was asking Sam to give her permission to do something she knows is wrong.

More generally:

  • Fake Apologizer: *does something they know the other person will object to*.
  • Fake Apologizer: “Oh, I’m sorry. I know I’m doing The Bad Thing…” or “I guess you’re going to be mad if I…”
  • Fake Apologizer: *expectant pause*
  • The Target is then supposed to feel pressured to say something like “That’s ok”, or “I know you mean well”, or “You’re a good person, so it’s ok for you to do The Bad Thing.”

If the Target doesn’t respond by giving the Fake Apologizer permission/validation, the Fake Apologizer will often lash out. This sometimes escalates in stages, along the lines of:

  • Fake Apologizer: I *said* I was sorry!
  • Fake Apologizer: *expectant pause*
  • The Target is then supposed to feel pressure to be grateful to the Fake Apologizer for apologizing, and then as a reward, give them permission to do The Bad Thing. (Or apologize for not letting them do The Bad Thing.)
  • If the Target doesn’t respond in the way the Fake Apologizer wants, they will often escalate to intense personal insults, or even overt threats, eg:
  • Fake Apologizer: I guess you’re just too bitter and broken inside to accept my good intentions. I hope you get the help you need. And/or:
  • Fake Apologizer: Ok, fine. I’ll never try to do anything for you ever again. And/or
  • Fake Apologizer: *storms off, and slams the door in a way that causes the person who refused their intrusive help to fall over*.

Tl;dr Sometimes what looks like an apology is really a manipulative demand for validation and permission to do something bad.

Image description: Text "Manipulative fake apologies" next to a picture of a man with flowers an an affected apology facial expression.

Making excuses

Anonymous said to realsocialskills:

Can you explain the concept of excuses? People often get mad at me for “making excuses” when I mess up, but I’m just trying to explain the situation, and maybe diffuse their anger over my mistakes. I’m not trying to transfer the blame to someone else. I don’t understand the problem. Please help.

 

realsocialskills said: 

Short version: You might get better results if you stop thinking of diffusing their anger as a goal.

Longer version:

Making excuses basically means doing something wrong, and attempting to prevent other people from taking it seriously. That can be in many forms:

  • Claiming that it wasn’t your fault the thing happened (even though it was)
  • Telling people that you’re not the kind of person who does that kind of thing (data they have is that you just did the thing. They get to decide what they think about that.)
  • Claiming that the thing wasn’t really a big deal (even though it was)
  • Stating or implying, through words or actions, that you expect there to be no consequences once you have explained (even consequences like people being annoyed with you)

eg:

  • Sue: Your dog just destroyed all of my mail. He ripped up my paycheck. This can’t happen again.
  • Brenda: Oh, I’m sorry, I’m really a responsible pet owner, I never do this kind of thing, it’s just my back was turned for a minute and my dog got out.

This is a bad response because:

  • Brenda’s dog just destroyed Sue’s mail.
  • Brenda is trying to make this a conversation about why Sue shouldn’t judge her
  • Sue has every right to be angry, and every right to have this affect her perception of Brenda

This would be a better approach:

  • Sue: Your dog just destroyed all of my mail. He ripped up my paycheck. This can’t happen again.
  • Brenda: I’m so sorry about that. I didn’t realize that the fence had termites, and my dog just ran right through it. We’re replacing the fence, and keeping the dog in while it’s being replaced. Is there a way I can help you fix things with the mail?

Sometimes you will be accused of making excuses when it’s not actually your fault. Eg:

  • Debra: Why is the logo a dinosaur? I wanted a potato.
  • Lucy: We discussed this, and you decided to go with the dinosaur. The contract says dinosaur logo. 
  • Debra: You’re just making excuses. Make the logo right.

Or:

  • Jason: Why did you just call me a pistachio? Is that some sort of weird slur?
  • Fred: I was offering you a pistachio.
  • Jason: Don’t make excuses. It’s not ok to insult me like that.

I don’t know of any effective response in that situation. I wish I did. 

If you’re talking to people who are basically reasonable, and you actually have made a mistake, this can be a good way to explain without sounding like you’re making excuses:

  • I’m sorry about this
  • This is how it happened
  • Here are the steps I’ll take to make it not happen again
  • Offering to fix what is fixable

eg: 

  • I’m sorry that my dog ate your homework. 
  • I didn’t know that dogs really did that, so I didn’t take precautions. 
  • From now on, I will keep up the baby gate so he can’t get in to the room you do homework in.
  • I’m sorry about this - are you going to get in trouble at school? Can I help you recreate it, or would it help if I wrote a note?

An important component of taking responsibility for a mistake is accepting that people are going to have feelings about it, and that an apology isn’t always going to make them go away. 

Let people feel the way they do about what you did. Taking responsibility doesn’t mean no one is allowed to still be upset with you, or that they are obligated to believe that you will do better in the future. It means that you’re acknowledging that you made a mistake and that the mistake is important and has consequences. Sometimes people are going to be upset about mistakes you make, and it’s important to learn how to handle that. If you try to use apologies as a cheat code to make them stop being upset, it’s likely to make them more upset.

Perspective in the face of other people's anger

This is a thing that happens with some people:

  • People get angry
  • They tell you off in mean ways that make you feel horrible
  • Or their anger scares you, even if they’re not actually being mean
  • You feel like the way you’re feeling is evidence that you’ve *done* something horrible
  • Or you’re afraid, and feel like you have to grovel for forgiveness in order to be safe

It’s really, really hard to tell whether you’ve actually done something wrong when someone is being mean to you. (Or when you’re terrified by anger or conflict.)

If you’re afraid or hurting, or especially both, it’s hard to have perspective. Especially if you feel like acknowledging that you’ve done a horrible thing might make that person stop hurting you. *Especially* if you’re really good at reading what someone wants to hear.

This is doubly true for people who have been abused. If you’ve been hurt by someone who demanded that you stop thinking in the face of every conflict, it’s hard to think when other people are angry with you. 

There are countermeasures. It’s possible to learn to deal with anger and conflict without falling apart.

Countermeasure #1: recognizing feelings that indicate that your perspective is off, and creating distance

  • If you’re panicking and feeling inclined to make an abject apology, it’s probably time to step back
  • Even if it turns out that you were in the wrong, a panic apology is unlikely to make the situation better
  • Because when you’re panicking, you’re not really capable of apologizing sincerely anyway
  • It’s ok to need time to think
  • It’s ok to realize that you’re panicking and need to back away from the situation to be able to think
  • Someone who won’t let you do this is probably not someone you should trust

Countermeasure #2: considering reversal:

  • Think about what you did, and how the person who is angry at you is reacting
  • What do you think you’d do if the situation was reversed?
  • In light of that, do you think their reaction is reasonable?
  • And do you think you actually did something terribly wrong?
  • (The answer to this might be yes even if you think you would have reacted differently. But thinking about reversal can still make the situation easier to understand)

Countermeasure #3: Think in concrete terms:

  • What, specifically, does the person who is mad at you think you did?
  • Do you think you actually did that thing?
  • If not, do they have a reasonable basis for thinking that you did that thing?
  • Are they understanding correctly? Are they listening to your explanation of what you think you did? (eg: if they think you said a slur and you actually said a different word that they misheard, are they screaming at you and saying you are just making excuses?)
  • If you did do the thing, why are they angry about the thing?
  • Do you think it’s reasonable that they are offended?
  • Do you think it’s reasonable that they are *as* offended as they are?
  • (Think about this seriously, especially if they think you are being racist, sexist, transphobic, ableist, etc towards them. Your initial reaction to this kind of thing is likely to be off base. But it is also possible to be wrong about these things, and ultimately, you have to think for yourself about whether you think you’re guilty of what you’re accused of.)

Countermeasure #4: Considering the perspective of someone you respect:

  • Think of someone who you know well and respect as someone who treats people well
  • If you’d done the thing to them, how do you think they’d react?
  • Does that match how the person who is angry at you now is reacting?
  • If you’d hurt the person you respect in a similar way by accident and they were upset with you, how do you think you’d be reacting?
  • Does it match how you’re reacting here? (Eg: are you more afraid? more inclined to panic-apologize? more defensive?)
  • In light of all of that, what do you think about what’s happening now?
  • Do you think that you did the thing you’re being accused of?
  • Do you think it was wrong? 
  • Do you think that the way they are reacting to you is unjustified or otherwise objectionable?
  • Do you think you should apologize? 
  • Do you think they should apologize?
  • (These are all real questions. Considering the hypothetical perspective of someone you know doesn’t give you automatic answers, but it can be helping as a way of getting unstuck when you’re afraid and inclined to panic about something you’ve been accused of. You might find that, even after you’ve stopped panicking, you still think that you have done something wrong and that you should apologize for it.)

Countermeasure #5: Outside perspective:

  • It can help to discuss the situation with people who know you well (especially if they’re not parties to the conflict)
  • Particularly if they are people who you can trust to tell you when they think you actually *have* done something wrong
  • Some friends are mutual check in people for one another. 
  • Some people get outside perspective from therapists. 
  • When you’re panicking, it can be hard to tell from the outside that you’re panicking. Panic in response to conflict can feel like you’re just accurately recognizing that you are terrible or something. 
  • It’s much easier to tell from the outside when that is happening
  • So, if you have people you trust to help you check your perspective, it is tremendously helpful in staying oriented and figuring out what’s actually going on

tl;dr: Some people find other people’s anger terrifying. If you experience that, it can be really hard not to automatically try to fix things by conceding that you are terrible and did a terrible thing. There are countermeasures that can help. It helps to work on noticing how you are feeling so that you can get distance when you need it. It helps to think about what you’d do if the roles were reversed. It helps to think as concretely as possible about the specifics of the situation. It helps to think about what you think someone you know well and respect would do (and what you would be doing if the conflict was with that person). It helps to get outside perspective from people you trust about what’s going on. 

about apologies

When you’ve been inadvertently rude:
  • Eg: If you carelessly bump into or trip someone
  • Or if you take away a chair away that a scooter/wheelchair user wants to sit on
  • It’s good to say “excuse me” or “sorry” in that situation
  • That kind of apology says implicitly “What I did was inadvertently rude. I don’t mean it as an insult, and I don’t think it’s ok to be rude to you.”
  • (It’s better not to say that explicitly, because saying it explicitly sounds like you’re pressuring them to reassure you that you’re a good person)
For the sake of someone you’ve hurt:
  • Sometimes when you hurt someone, apologizing is a way to undo some of the hurt.
  • Because it can be a way of saying “That wasn’t your fault, it was my fault, you deserved better and I’m sorry”
  • (That can be powerful, because people often think that it is their own fault when someone hurts them, and they are in fact often pressured into thinking that it’s their fault or that it didn’t happen by their entire social circle. If you apologize without offering any defense, that can go a long way towards fixing that, particularly if you are also honest with third parties)
  • If you hurt someone without apologizing, it can be an implied threat that you will do the same thing again in the future.
  • If you realize that what you did was wrong and apologize for doing it, the person you hurt might feel safer and be spared the stress of living under the implied threat of harm you’ve created
  • (but this is something you do for their sake, not yours. The point is to stop threatening them, not to get them to feel better about you, forgive you, or trust you. You don’t have any right to any of that and shouldn’t put pressure on them to give it. They’re allowed to be afraid of you, whether or not you feel you deserve it)

For your own sake:

  • Sometimes, you offend someone with power over you (eg: a boss, a teacher, a nurse, a social worker) without actually being in the wrong
  • Or a group with power over you (eg: an activist group)
  • And, in that case, it is often a good idea to apologize even if you have done nothing wrong
  • The point of apologizing in this case is to appease powerful people enough that they will stop hurting you
  • Everyone does this at some point; there’s no shame in it even though it can be humiliating
  • Sometimes it’s also good to draw a line and refuse to apologize and take the consequences of taking a stand. But you’re not going to be able to refuse every time you offend someone with power over you

It’s very important to be clear about which type of apology you are making:

  • If you’ve hurt someone, it’s important that the apology be for their sake and not yours
  • Sometimes if you hurt someone, they will be angry at you. They might also tell other people what you did. They might be afraid of you. They might avoid you. They probably think of you as a person who does the kind of thing you did to them (because you are: if you did the thing, you are the kind of person who does that thing). They might be afraid of you.
  • None of those things are wronging you; they have the right to do all of those things and you don’t have the right to stop them
  • Since all of those things hurt, it can feel tempting to use the scripts you use when you’re apologizing to a person who is wronging *you* to get them to stop. 
  • It is not ok to do that when you’re the one who is in the wrong.
  • The point of your apology is to give them something, not to get something from them or make them stop doing something

If you’re really sorry, you have to be willing to admit what you did to third parties without defending yourself:

  • Eg: “Yes, they’re telling the truth. I wish I hadn’t done that, but I did, and they have every right to be angry with me”.
  • This will mean that some people *other than the person you’ve hurt directly* won’t trust you either
  • It means that some people whose respect you value will have a low opinion of you
  • You have to be willing to accept this without trying to gloss over what you have done; anything less is continuing the harm done to the person you hurt
  • Even if you have sincerely changed, you still did what you did, and no one has to trust you. Everyone gets to decide for themself

Sometimes it’s important not to apologize:

  • If you have reason to think that someone would find contact with you terrifying or otherwise unwelcome, leave them alone
  • In particularly, if someone you have hurt has told you not to contact them, do not contact them with an apology
  • When they said “don’t contact me”, they meant it. They did not mean “don’t contact me unless you’re sorry” or “don’t contact me unless you feel like you have a good reason”
  • It is not ok to violate that boundary, no matter how much you regret the circumstances leading up to it. Your victim does not owe you help in your healing.
  • If you’re considering contacting your victim to apologize even though you know they don’t want you to, you probably haven’t improved nearly enough to be capable of offering a sincere apology anyway. Go work on understanding boundaries and your actions some more before you think you’re all better.

A rude thing that people do to wheelchair and mobility scooter users

So, here’s a thing that happens a lot:
  • Someone rides a wheelchair or mobility scooter into a room that has many chairs in it
  • They want to sit on one of those chairs.
  • Several people, trying to be helpful, dart in to remove the very chair they wanted to sit on

This is very annoying.

  • Especially when it happens several times a week
  • Especially when the people who dart in to remove the chairs are very proud of themselves for Helping The Disabled
  • Even more so if they don’t understand “actually, I want to sit in that chair”, and keep removing it anyway
  • Even more so if the person has to physically grab the chair they want to sit on to prevent it from being removed
  • (And sometimes people react badly to being corrected and become aggressive or condescending)

Do not do this annoying thing.

  • Instead, find out what the person you want to be helpful to actually wants
  • People who use mobility equipment are not actually glued to it
  • And different people have different preferences about where they want to sit
  • You can’t know without asking them
  • (You can’t read their mind, Some people seem to think that mobility equipment transmits a telepathic call for help regardless of the person’s actual apparent interest in help. Those people are wrong. You have to actually ask)
  • You can’t know where someone wants to sit unless you ask, so ask
  • One way you can ask is “Would you like me to move anything?”

If you forget to ask, and make the wrong assumption:

  • Recognize that you have been rude
  • And apologize, and say “Oh, excuse me” or “Sorry. I’ll put it back.”
  • This is the same kind of rude as, say, accidentally cutting in line
  • Or being careless and bumping into someone
  • This is not a big-deal apology, it’s basically just acknowledging that you made a rude mistake
  • People make and acknowledge rude mistakes all the time with nondisabled folks
  • The same people who say “excuse me” when they bump into a nondisabled person, are often completely silent when they do something rude related to someone’s disability
  • Being on the receiving end of a lot of unacknowledged rudeness is degrading and draining. Particularly when you see that the same people who are rude to you without apologizing say “sorry” and “excuse me” to people without disabilities they interact with
  • Do not be part of this problem
  • When you are inadvertently rude to someone who has a disability, it’s important to acknowledge and apologize for it in the same way you would for any other inadvertent interpersonal rudeness

When you're not sure whether something is wrong

sometimes i feel like i did something wrong but i am not sure and dont know what might have done. i usually say “i am sorry if i hurt you” because i dont know whether i did or not. but this seems really close to something people are saying is wrong to say. is there a better way of checking if hurt someone i care about and finding out how to make it up to them?
realsocialskills said:
I think that pre-emptively apologizing doesn’t usually help in those situations. Apologies don’t mean very much if you don’t know what you’re apologizing for, and it can look like an attempt to avoid criticism. (Ie: you might seem to be implicitly saying “I already apologized! Why are you still talking about this problem?!”)
Also, if nothing is actually wrong, that kind of apology can make people worry about how you’d react if something *was* wrong.
Instead, it’s better to try to find out whether something’s wrong, and if so, what it is. Then you can figure out what to do with that. I think it works best if you say explicitly that you think you may have hurt them, and then ask if you are right. Eg:
  • “I feel like something is wrong. Is there a problem?”
  • “I feel like I hurt you. Did I?”
  • “I’m worried that I may have hurt you. Is something wrong?”
  • “Is there something we need to talk about? I feel like I did something wrong.”

This makes it clear that you think there might be a problem, and that you care about finding out what it is.

Sometimes, people that I think of as close friends because of how long I’ve known them and the things they’ve helped me with decide to totally cut me out of their lives without warning and without explaining why they’ve done it. I can’t become a better friend or person if they don’t tell me what’s wrong, so what am I supposed to do in situations like this? It hurts and leaves me distrustful of everyone for a long time whenever it happens.
realsocialskills said:
I don’t know you, so I can’t say with any real confidence what is going on. But I do know one thing that I’ve seen happen over and over with a number of people, so I’m going to describe it in case it is applicable.
I think it might be worth taking a look at what happens when people say no to you, and seeing if maybe the way you react is creating relationship problems.
Here’s a thing that might be happening (I don’t know you, so I can’t be sure, but I’ve seen this happen with other people):
  • It’s really hard for people to say no to you because of the way you react when other people don’t want what you want
  • But you have a lot of really good qualities, and people like you a lot
  • So, in the medium term, people put up with not being allowed to have appropriate boundaries so they can be around you
  • But, eventually, this becomes intolerable
  • And when people reach the point of not being willing to put up with it anymore, they’re not inclined to discuss it with you
  • Because it would involve having the kind of confrontation they’ve spent your whole relationship carefully avoiding
This might not be you. But, if you think it might be, here’s some things to look at:
When your friends say no, can it be ok, or does it always upset you?
  • For instance, if you want a friend to go to a movie with you, and they say they don’t want to see that one, can you see that as ok, or does it always feel like a betrayal?
  • When you invite your friends to so something, and they’re busy or have conflicting plans, can you see that as ok, or does it always feel like a betrayal?
  • Friends don’t always want to do the same things, and it’s normal for friends to say no to suggestions for getting together. If it *always* upsets you, there’s a problem.
  • There are legitimate reasons to be upset when friends don’t want to do something, (or especially when friends cancel plans without a good reason.) But if you’re *always* upset when friends say no to things you suggest, there’s probably a problem with your expectations. 
Can you think of recent examples in which a long-term friend said no to you, and you didn’t get upset? 
  • If not, it’s likely that you have problems accepting no for an answer
  • Because friends say no to each other all the time for all kinds of good and even important reasons
  • And that’s part of what maintains good relationships and allows people to try new things
When your friends say no, does it ever stick, or do they almost always end up doing what you wanted anyway?
  • In good friendships, people can and do say no to each other regularly.
  • If when your friends say no, they almost always apologize, back down, and do what you wanted, something is wrong
  • Friends need to be able to say no. Friends need to be able to hear no.
  • It’s ok if sometimes it turns out that something was more important to you than your friend initially realized, and your friend changed their mind once they realized.
  • But if that happens all or most of the time, it’s an indication that you probably should work on learning to take no for an answer
  • If this is happening with all or most of your friends, you’re probably making it difficult for people to say no to you, and that’s probably making it hard for you to maintain relationships.
  • (Not an absolute indication, because it’s also possible that a lot  of people in your life have trouble saying no for reasons that have nothing to do with you. But if you notice this pattern, it’s worth seeing if there’s something you can do about it.)
What happens when your friends don’t want to do things for you?
  • If you ask for a lot of favors and almost no one you consider to be a friend ever says no, that’s a sign that something might be wrong
  • Because there are a lot of things that it’s ok to ask but not ok to assume the answer will be yes
  • And if your friends don’t ever say no, it’s very likely that it’s because they feel like they can’t
  • If people who do say no tend to end up crying, apologizing, and doing the thing you asked them to do anyway, that’s a serious red flag
  • It might be that your friends are manipulative and like to make you feel bad about asking for things, and don’t like to say no - that’s a thing that happens, and a possibility that it’s important to take seriously
  • But it also might be that you’ve made it really difficult to say no, and that it’s causing relationship problems, and it’s also important to take that possibility seriously

How do you react when your friends don’t want to share some aspects of their life? For instance:

  • Do you expect to meet your friend’s coworkers and get hurt and offended if this doesn’t happen?
  • Do you get upset if your friends don’t want to answer intimate questions about their sex life?
  • Do you get angry if your friends don’t want your advice about their personal life?
  • Do you expect your friends to listen to your theories about their medical condition and follow your plan of treatment?
  • If you’re having these kinds of reactions, something is wrong.
  • Friends don’t share everything with friends, and people have the right to keep their private life private, even if their friends want to be part of it.
  • Friends also have the right to have other social relationships that not all of their friends are included in (There’s a good article on Geek Social Fallacies that explains why).

When you apologize, does it usually result in you getting your way?

  • A real apology means acknowledging that you have done something wrong, that you’ve stopped doing that thing, and that you will try your best not to do it again in the future
  • There are other kinds of apologies that are more about either manipulating others or submitting to someone’s power over you
  • There are all kinds of situations in which using those are legitimate, but not between close friends. Apologies between close friends should be genuine.
  • Some kinds of apologies are really about making it hard for people to tell you when you’re hurting them
  • I wrote about that some before
  • If when you apologize in your personal life, people tend to feel guilty for making you feel bad, and then do what you wanted anyway, something is wrong

If any of this sounds like you, it’s probably really important that you work on learning to take no for an answer. Other people, even friends who care about you very much, have all kinds of legitimate reasons to say no to you. If you can accept that as an inevitable part of a relationship, it will make it a lot easier to have and keep mutually good relationships going.

As I said, I don’t know you, and it may well be that this isn’t the problem, or that it isn’t the main problem. But this is a very common problem, and it might be worth considering.

Supporting people who are overly apologetic

Some people apologize all the time, for everything. This can be very annoying.

Here’s a conversation:

  • Mary: I like ice cream. I don’t want to order a slice of cake. I’m sorry.
  • Darlene: Dude, you don’t have to apologize!
  • Mary: Argh, I’m sorry about that.
  • Darlene: ::headdesk:::

Telling someone off for that kind of thing doesn’t help. People who do this do it for a reason; they’ve often been taught that they always have to want what other people want. They’ve been taught that it’s rude to ever express a desire. This is not something you can fix by getting annoyed.

In fact, you can’t fix it at all, because you can’t actually fix other people in any case. But getting annoyed makes the problem worse. So does telling someone off for apologizing. Some people need to apologize and adopt a deferential tone in order to feel ok about expressing preferences and boundaries. If you put pressure on people not to apologize, it makes it harder for them to tell you what they want. Don’t take it personally, and don’t take it out on them. It’s not your fault, and it’s not their fault either.

There are things that you can say that sometimes help other people to feel more comfortable expressing desires, if you can say them in a non-annoyed tone of voice:

  • “That’s not a problem.”
  • “That’s fine.”
  • “You didn’t do anything wrong.”

Pranks

Pranks can be funny, but a lot of them are bad.

There are basically two kinds of ok pranks:

  • Pranks that you reasonably expect the target to find funny
  • Pranks that make someone who has unreasonable amounts of power look ridiculous

If the first kind of prank goes bad:

  • Don’t tell the person they should learn to take a joke
  • Apologize
  • If there’s something you can fix, fix it
  • Don’t play that kind of prank on that person again

Some pranks that nearly always go bad:

  • Pranks played on individual people you have a lot of power over (eg: a child, an employee, a patient)
  • False promises (eg: convincing someone you’re going to let them borrow your car to go to a concert they really care about, then giving them your toy car and laughing at them when they’re ready to leave)
  • Breaking someone’s stuff
  • Invading someone’s space if they’re being stalked or have a history of being stalked or abused (eg: If someone is being stalked, planting a bunch of flamingos on their lawn is likely to be frightening in an unfunny way. Leaving flamingos inside their house is likely to be terrifying. )
  • Tricking someone into eating something they don’t want to eat (Tricking vegetarians into eating meat is not funny. Neither is tricking Jews or Muslims into eating pork. Neither is tricking someone into eating something they’re allergic to or intolerant of, even if you think they’re lying. Neither is tricking someone into eating bugs or dirt or something else they’d consider disgusting. Just don’t do it.)
  • Exposing someone to something they have a phobia or or find triggering. Eg: if you know your friend is terrified of spiders, don’t leave a fake spider on the kitchen table to scare them.
  • Sexualized pranks (particularly if you’re a man playing them on a woman).

If you’re playing a prank to undermine someone’s unreasonable authority:

  • Don’t hurt innocent bystanders
  • Don’t do things that make you look worse than them
  • Don’t insult them for the wrong reasons (eg: If someone’s abusive and also fat, don’t make a big banner mocking them for being fat. Partly because this hurts fat innocent bystanders)

A follow up: When you're the one who wants forgiveness

Sometimes, you hurt someone in a way that is dealbreaking. I think most people will probably do this at some point during the course of their life. Not to the same degree, and not with the same culpability, but it’s something that everyone is capable of doing.

If you do that, it’s important not to put pressure on the person you hurt to forgive you.

If they’ve asked you not to contact them, respect that. Even if you think that you understand what the problem was and you’ve now solved it. Even if you think you’re trustworthy now. Even if what you really want is a chance to apologize. 

People you’ve hurt don’t owe you their attention, and they don’t owe it to you to help you learn to be a better person. They don’t owe you help getting atonement.

When you’re in a hole, stop digging. Don’t keep hurting the person with constant invasive attempts to apologize or fix things.

Sometimes you can’t make things right. Some things can’t be undone; some damage can’t be fixed.

What you can do is move on, and learn from the experience. You can learn what you did wrong, and figure out how to never do it again. And you can build a life in which you are good to others, while respecting that the person you hurt is no longer part of it.