The Daily Stoic for April 17th. “No harm, no foul”.
“Do away with the opinion I am harmed, and the harm is cast away too. Do away with being harmed, and harm disappears.”
—MARCUS AURELIUS, MEDITATIONS, 4.7
Many years ago, a pizza slice costed me one of my best friends. I was probably 23 years old. Me and my friends used to hang out to play Dungeons And Dragons, watch a science fiction film, or any of that stuff we nerdy teenagers did back then.
One night, we ordered pizza. One of my friends said he couldn’t afford his part, so he won’t be eating anything. Obviously, when the pizzas came, he ate pizza like the rest of us. None of us cared.
A week later, we were in the middle of an epic battle against a horde of goblins that were terrorizing a sea village, when someone proposed a break to eat pizza again (ahhh, I really miss those good times).
Another friend -actually the brother of the previous one- said “To be honest, I don’t have any money right now, so I won’t be eating anything”. Then, I made a terrible joke, saying: “Don’t be ridiculous, do as your brother past week, say you don’t have money, and then when the pizzas arrive, just start devouring them”.
No Harm, No Foul
My joke was completely innocent. Seriously. I didn’t mean any harm to my friend. For me, paying 5 euros instead of 4 to cover his part was utterly insignificant.
However, my friend took it personally. He -or, more concretely, his girlfriend- thought I was mocking him. Probably my tone was not the right one. Maybe I should had stated more clearly that it was a joke. Anyway, some weeks later we no longer were friends.
I have to admit I was also upset. I used to make a lot of jokes back then… perhaps way too many. Nonetheless, my friends knew that’s the way I was, and they knew I’d never, ever make a cruel joke to humiliate or make fun of a friend. That’s why I was so angry… I thought he’d failed to “see” me.
But he was a good friend. One of the best I’ve ever had. When I came out, some years earlier, he didn’t say a word. He just came up to me and hugged me. That hug was so important for me at so many levels, that I cannot even express it with words.
And there we were, some years later, separated by a stupid joke and a cheap pizza.
Hence, I’ve always regretted that night, not choosing the right tone or making my joke more obvious, or less offensive.
No Foul, No Harm
Some years later, I met my friend and his girlfriend -now wife- again. We exchanged some nice words, and I got the feeling that they were trying to work things out.
While initially happy to fix that mishap from the past, soon enough I got the feeling that they were putting me a condition I was not able to comply with. Namely, I should not make more cruel jokes again. While it was not exactly worded like that… It was written between the lines.
So, I decided that I wanted to be with people who could really see who I am. Beyond stereotypes, prejudices and biases. Someone who knows I am incapable of harming my friends, even if I wanted to.
I wished them all the best, sincerely, from the bottom of my heart. Then turned away, and continued with my life.
Probably that was another mistake on my part. Or maybe not. I don’t even think there’s right or wrong in this story, only people whose paths diverged.
So here’s a double example of how important our interpretations of someone’s intentions are. Sometimes, a subtle variation in tone, or a poor word choice, can ruin or bury a good relationship, friendship or job opportunity. Our impressions, or the impressions of others, can make a huge difference.
At 38, I rarely make jokes anymore, but I still think we need to see others as they really are. We need to be more thoughtful about how our intentions can be misinterpreted, and how we might be misinterpreting the intentions of others.
But above all, we need to be true to who we are, and let others do the same.
Today’s Daily Stoic, “no harm, no foul”, discusses how words can mean multiple things depending on the tone or the way we pronounce them. I completely agree. In my experience, a bad selection of words, a subtle change in tone, or a misinterpretation, can easily break a friendship. In my case, it happened due to a bad joke I made.