Friday, September 17, 2010

My important cruelty

In today's Dear Prudence, a former bully considers apologizing:
I'm a 27-year-old female with a wonderful life. However, as an elementary school student, I was overweight, nerdy, and bookish, and I was teased mercilessly by classmates. I was a sensitive child, and these taunts hurt me deeply. In turn, I did something that I'm still ashamed of—I bullied another classmate. She was an Indian girl and, most embarrassingly, I teased her about her cultural background. (As an adult, I would never tolerate such racist comments.) I have found her Facebook page and would like to send her a brief message apologizing for my behavior as a child. Is this appropriate to do? I don't want to stir up trouble or further hurt this woman in any way, but I need to let her know that I am truly sorry. If one of my former bullies sent me such a message, I would understand why he or she felt the need to apologize.
Prudence's advice starts out straightforward enough...
You can't be wrong for apologizing for doing something shameful. Where you can go wrong is in expecting a forgiving or otherwise gratifying response from the person you hurt.
But quickly takes a turn into the weird...
I'm old-fashioned enough that I don't feel a "brief message" (a private one, please!) on Facebook covers this. I think you should reintroduce yourself through Facebook, then explain that you have been long troubled by your atrocious behavior toward her in grade school and that you would like the opportunity to give a fuller apology—either over the phone or in a letter—if she would consider it. She may just blow you off. If she does, accept that you tried and respect her feelings. If she agrees to talk to you or gives you her address, be careful not to excuse what you did, but explain that you now understand that in the ways of childhood, you struck out at her as an irrational response to your own anguish. Tell her you know you can't undo the pain she suffered then, but you hope she will consider your apology now.
Lulu: Snail mail apology letter? Call her on the phone? What? That's creepy!

Ashley: I know! It's so stalky! Just apologize in a Facebook message. Make it short and sweet, and if they want to respond, they'll do it.

Lulu: Exactly. The reason the LW is hesitant about this in the first place is that she's worried that just thinking about her will bring back bad memories. I guess Prudence wants to err on the side of polite grandeur, but this is not the time!

Ashley: "Can you give me your home address so I can send you A Very Important Letter?" Terrifying.

So here are our Handy Pocket Tips for a Possibly Unwelcome Apology:

* Do make the message as convenient as possible for the reader. Keep it short and sweet, and don't ask for or expect a response.

* Don't make excuses, or try to prove your currently-a-good-person cred. (For the record, I think the way this LW put it is fine--thanks to her matter-of-fact tone, the background information came across as an explanation, not an excuse.)

* Don't assume that you loom large in the apologizee's memories or that they even necessarily remember you. That doesn't mean you're off the hook for apologizing, but keep in mind as you write that your misdeeds are probably more important to you than to them.

* Do communicate with them in a way that minimizes your intrusion into their private spaces and which makes it clear you have done no special research to find them. Facebook is perfect.

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