“There is no need to talk down to me,” the indignant woman said.
Inwardly, I protested.
“What on earth???? Had I really just offended this stranger??? What had I said???” I wondered.
Outwardly, I responded, “I’m sorry. This was never my intent. I was attempting to tell you that I am not going to move to that queue.”
Just minutes before, those who were assembled near the place I was standing were directed to an area that honestly didn’t feel right to me. My gut lurched. I thought, “This isn’t what I am supposed to do.” So, when the woman dictated that I stand in line with the others, I responded that I was waiting for a friend. I wouldn’t take any action until I knew more information that my friend was sure to provide.
For some reason, this lady did not appreciate my response and told me so.
Her words and demeanor slapped me in the face. And yet, my words had triggered offense.
As I attempted to make amends with the woman, she became more and more distant. After my appeal for forgiveness, every enquiry I offered, was met with aloof retorts. My efforts failed. The woman’s conduct not only dismissed me, but categorized me. She said that she needed to go and proceeded to stand in the fore-mentioned queue. As I observed the line of people and listened to their directions, I sighed with relief. This group gathered for an altogether different purpose than the one for which I had come – my gut instinct had proven true.
However, this unpleasant encounter unsettled me.
I cannot remember a time in all my years in South Africa where I have ever been accused of showing such glowering offense. I cringe at the thought. Since I am a missionary and ambassador for Christ, I make every possible effort to show humility and respect with the people I encounter here.
I evaluated myself and wondered again, “What had I done to make this woman so uncomfortable and then so dismissive of me?”
I’ll never know, of course. I never interacted with this woman again.
However, days after this short, yet, cutting confrontation, I’m still pondering this strange interchange. Her words echo in the recesses of my heart and mind. Her words sting with accusation.
I live in a country where language and cultural misunderstandings abound. Such misunderstandings occur when a word, a gesture, or any type of social interaction has two separate and distinct meanings between different cultures. These misconceptions and misjudgments have the potential to be resolved through patience, humility, grace, transparency, and time. However, as in my case, these difficulties may lead to oblivion – a place of irresolution, confusion, and frustration. Like I said, I still don’t understand what I said or did that caused such offense.
Of course, it may not be my issue at all. Some people are just easily offended.
Yet, it is also true that we have the tendency to project past, unresolved and painful circumstances into present-day contexts. Since this woman and I do not share the same mother-tongue, the same cultural background, nor the same social mannerisms, we could easily misunderstand each other. There is little doubt that at some time and in some place in life, this woman has been dismissed, looked over, and perhaps, even forgotten. There are few worse moments in life than to feel invisible, unnoticed, unimportant and unappreciated.
In some way, I was responsible for that.
Ugh. Ugh. Ugh.
You see, I am intimately aware of how it feels to be rejected and dismissed. Perhaps, you have, too.
I’ve experienced the isolation and loneliness of social gatherings where everyone seems to be connected and known – but I’m not.
There have been moments in my life where I’ve been dismissed for not having the title, the position, or the accolade of a certain success or achievement – because I didn’t.
I know what it is like to walk into a room where others are so intent on being with their friends, their family, or their associates that if I walked away – no one would notice my absence.
I know what it is like to sit with a group of strangers who share some common ground and choose solely to engage amongst themselves – leaving me feeling invisible, ignored, and lost.
I know the shame of not being good enough, smart enough, thin enough, talented enough, cute enough, or savvy enough to hold some one’s attention or respect – because I will never attain that height of ideal or perfection.
Ugh. Ugh. Ugh.
Like me, I’m certain this woman has experienced such moments in life. However, with me, she purposely decided to confront the offense she felt. She told me that my words made her feel under-valued and under-appreciated. The woman called me out.
As I reflect upon this moment in time, I realize that this woman did me a favor.
Because if I did it to her, I may have harmed someone else – whether unintentionally or not – at some point in life as well. For it is a rare thing that someone will bring an offense to my attention in such a direct, confrontational way. Because we don’t do that – certainly not face to face – as this woman did to me. Indeed, many choose to save the face of the offender rather than to bring them shame. In the situations I listed above, I never voiced my complaint. Instead, I chose to disappear. I packed up their offenses, my hurt, and my rejection and carried them away with me.
In these instances of cutting pain, I was too wounded to say one single thing about my misery.
But, I remember.
I remember being ignored.
I remember being shamed.
I remember being snubbed and excluded.
I remember being discarded.
I remember being shelved.
I remember being brushed aside and forgotten.
And because I remember, I never, ever, ever desire to be found guilty of a similar trespass against another. And yet, as in the case with this woman, I realize that despite all of my good intentions to treat others with honor, respect, and love, I can still fail.
And it’s made me wonder…
How many more people have I offended and yet, they’ve kept silent and packed away their offenses and pain because of me????
I need to be more cognizant of my behavior and its effects on others. As Paul would say, “I need to attend to my own business….”
In 1 Thessalonians 4:11, Paul writes:
and make it your ambition to lead a quiet life and attend to your own business and work with your hands, just as we commanded you….
New American Standard Bible, 1 Thessalonians 4:11
To live in Christ, to love Him wholly, and to follow Him requires me to pay attention to how I live and conduct myself in all facets of life. Paul exhorts me to set aside any ambition for any self-gratuitous adulation and praise, and turn such glory towards Jesus Christ and the encouragement and care of others. In other words, I need to take healthy stock of how I am treating others – wherever I am and for whatever purpose I am engaged. It’s not my role to judge the behavior and business of others – even when they neglect, ignore, or offend me. And it’s certainly not my deal to make myself a big deal – because I am offended!
Instead, it’s my job to inspect and evaluate my own character:
How am I loving others?
How am I showing affection to my family?
How am I engaging with my fellow workmates – do I show them respect?
How am I fostering and growing my friendships?
How am I attending to the needs of strangers?
How am I empowering and encouraging those that I mentor?
The occupation of my heart, the enterprise of my mind, the employment of my words, and the productivity of my hands should be devoted to the love, care and upliftment of others.
Recently, my words and behavior caused offense. That’s not what I am about. And I’m so sorry about that.
I may not be able to make any more amends with this stranger.
What can I do?
I can begin again and mind my own business – making every effort to love, care and respect whoever my God brings into my life and for whatever reason.
I pray that the offense I showed this woman was forgiven.
This is my prayer.
I don’t want anyone packing around offenses because of my insensitivity, inattention, or lack of cultural understanding.
So, yes, this precious lady, a child of my God, gave me a quick shake. She prompted me to pay even more attention to how I interact with others – especially in the southern African context in which I live.
How am I treating others?
Am I showing love or offense?
It’s a question I need to be asking myself – often.