I came across a pair of cod-definitions a while ago (I can’t find the reference), along the following lines:
- A jerk is someone who, because their attention is elsewhere or they don’t know the consequences of their actions, messes up things for other people
- An asshole is someone who knows that their actions will mess things up for other people but goes ahead anyway
Would you rather be seen as a jerk or an asshole? Probably neither! But, if you screw up in public—say by tripping someone or bumping into someone in public—you would rather that this be seen as an accident rather than a result of you (say) thinking that you need to get somewhere quickly as so you are going to push your way through the crowd regardless of whether you trip or bump other people.
How do we try to achieve this? We usually do this by following up an apology with an explanation, whether a real one or a made-up one: “sorry, just got new glasses yesterday and I’m still adjusting”. By giving this explanation, we are trying to change the perception of the person we offended by moving from the (seeming default) asshole category to a position that we might called “justified jerk”, where we messed up because we weren’t sensitive enough to realise that our situation (say, the new glasses) required more care, but at least we have some reason for it. We are essentially sending out an appeal for empathy.
Usually, though, this doesn’t work. The explanation gets taken as an “excuse” and just harrumphed off. I wonder why? Perhaps this is a variant on the Dunning-Kruger phenomenon, where people who are bad at some task overestimate their ability at the task. I imagine that when we ask for empathy in the situation, the other person thinks “if I’d just got new glasses, I’d have been more careful and slowed down my pace of walking etc.”. As a result, we get bumped back into asshole territory: because we have tried to give an explanation, we have shown some awareness of the situation, and therefore given evidence that we had some understanding that we could have used to anticipate the problem, so the problem is because of our arrogant disregard rather than because of casual error.
Perhaps just an apology is better? But then, we don’t move they person away from their default position that we are doing this for assholey reasons. Perhaps there is no way out of this bind.