Part of my job involves editing the quarterly alumni magazine for the University. This also means that for a few weeks after each issue hits mailboxes, I receive calls from all the people who want their names off the mailing list.
Usually, the people are polite and just inform me that the person on the mailing label no longer lives at that address or that their parent has passed away and no longer needs to be on the mailing list. I express my condolences or thanks, get the information, and pass it along to the person who manages the list.
Early last month, I got a call from a man who I assumed was calling for this reason after he introduced himself. I had my pen ready to take down his address.
Instead, his voice took on an angry tone and grew louder as he spoke. His ire wasn’t fueled by any content in the magazine. Instead, it was the mailing label that had angered him. Pause and consider that: the mailing label.
Addressed to both him and his wife, he was furious that we had addressed the magazine to his wife using the title “Mrs.” rather than a title that reflected her professional position.
A position we at the university were entirely unaware of.
(Note: people often assume that universities automatically receive address updates, death notices and promotion info. We don’t—not unless you tell us.)
I assured the man that using the title “Mrs.” was in no way meant to intentionally slight his wife, but it did little to calm him. He informed me that if we expected him or his wife to do anything for the university, we should give his wife her due. I explained again that there was no intention not to do that. It’s hard to address someone with a title you don’t know they have. I ended the conversation as amicably as I could and went on with my day, but I found myself thinking about it again and again.
I ended the conversation as amicably as I could and went on with my day, but I found myself thinking about it again and again.
In many ways, we’ve become a society that doesn’t give the benefit of the doubt. Like my caller, we assume that any discomfort, small mistake or slight that comes our way is intentional.
Not everything that seems like a slight or dig at you is intentional. That car that cut you off in the traffic on the way to work? Maybe she was late for a presentation and didn’t even see you. That email that seemed snarky and pointed? Maybe the writer was trying to be funny and didn’t realize that humor can be easily misconstrued when there aren’t facial or social cues to tip you off. That person who is being so hard to work with and seemingly making snide comments behind your back? Maybe he or she is going through something personally that you have no idea about.
Sure, sometimes we discover that some people are intentionally trying to be hurtful when their actions erase all doubt. But most of the time, do yourself and those around you a favor and give them the benefit of the doubt!