In my youth, I probably corrected people a bit more that was wise, and often over trivial matters of grammar, or worse, over matters of opinion. As I’ve gone on, I’ve learned A) that people very often do not wish to be corrected, even on matters of objective fact; and B) that it isn’t my job to educate them. Still, it can sometimes be difficult for me to keep my big mouth shut when I hear things I know to be wrong issuing from the mouths of my friends and acquaintances.
It can be instructive to remind oneself of the Golden Rule when it comes to corrections. That is, if the nonsense were coming not from my friend’s mouth but rather from my own, would I want to be corrected, and if so, how? Hmmm… well yes, I do want you to tell me about it, but I don’t want you to be snotty or smug about it, and I’d rather you didn’t embarrass me in front of others unless it’s really necessary.
That part of the answer is simple enough, but the rules, Golden and otherwise, begin to break down when we have a situation where we both know we’re right. I had that happen a while back. A friend was giving directions on how to get from Point A to Point B. It was a route I’d traveled many times, probably many more times than she had, and I knew her directions were faulty and would result in confusion and chaos. I also understood precisely where her logic train had derailed. Alas, when I brought this up (quite nicely I thought), she gave me an earful and corrected me in an assured tone that contained no self-doubt. I tried to press my point but got nowhere, while she tried at the same time to assure me that I was in the wrong. I then suggested we drop that line of discussion, since we both knew we were in the right. She agreed, though grudgingly, since I’m sure she felt the same frustration I was feeling – that our friend was quite obviously in the wrong and unwilling the accept the counsel of someone who knew better. I should add, I suppose, that I have since traveled that route and have verified that I was in the right all along. I don’t know whether she has done the same, and I’m not going to be the one to bring it up, since I have no interest in another pointless discussion, nor a need to say “I told you so!” One must choose one’s battles, and some are not worth the price.
In a way, it’s funny that I should be talking at all about matters of objective fact. I am often regarded by my friends as someone who doesn’t speak in terms of “facts.” My instincts more often lead me in the direction of skepticism about most everything; so much so that one long-time friend has dubbed me with the nickname “Mr. Gray.” I tend to harbor the naïve hope that, because I so rarely speak in absolute terms, when I actually do so people will sit up and take notice, and maybe think that I must know what I’m talking about. Yes, yes, I know… like I said, a naïve hope.
I also try to speak in non-absolute, skeptical terms because there’s so darn much I don’t know, and so very many times when I’ve thought I knew what I was talking about only to put my foot way down my own throat. So I hope I don’t come across as arrogant in discussing this matter.
And then, sometimes, it gets truly personal – someone thinks they know something about me when they don’t, and I feel obliged to correct them. Sometimes, it’s fairly benign: “When you were in college, Chuck…” – and I have an amusing moment of correcting them. Other times, though, it can be downright disconcerting. A few months back, one friend of mine got it into her head that I was involved with someone: “So what’s her name, Chuck? Who are you sleeping with?” It took a few minutes for me to get her to accept the truth of the situation, though I got the feeling she was still allowing for the possibility that I was just being coy. Another came from someone I barely knew at all, who tried to tell me that I don’t like women(!), though she had no argument to back it up. I suppose if this were coming from someone who actually knew me, such a statement might be troubling, but coming from an area of such obvious ignorance, it was a lot easier to dispense with – though I have to admit I still would have liked to hear how she cooked up that notion. In this particular instance, by the way, other circumstances interrupted us and we never finished the discussion, though I was at least able to offer a denial and express my wonderment that she would claim to have divined something of this nature from our limited interaction. Frankly, I suspect there was something else going on there – some script playing in her mind that had nothing to do with me.
I guess I’ve gotten a little off the track of my original topic. In closing, I think I can draw a parallel between correcting people and vegetarianism. Bear with me on this: First of all, I don’t actually call myself a vegetarian, since I do eat seafood, but I have often stated my basic philosophy in terms like these: I want to be a vegetarian, but I don’t want to be a dick about it. That is, I have known people, some of them dear friends, who have demonstrated a great deal of strident, obnoxious arrogance when it came to proclaiming their vegetarianism. The same can also be said of friends holding various other political and philosophical beliefs, for that matter. In the same way, I’d like to be able to correct people when it seems necessary and appropriate, but I don’t want to be a dick about it. I’ve been on the receiving end of some harsh and downright sadistic corrections in my life, and that sure isn’t who I want to be!