MacPhail: The tightrope of causing offence

Angus MacPhail

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Offending people and being offended is an unpredictable minefield in human interaction that most of us are involved in at some point in our clumsy voyage on the seas of social integration. A recent happening brought this phenomenon to mind.
Last weekend I attended a talk that was part Glasgow’s Aye Write! literary festival. The hosts were two eminent Scottish writers whose names I will not mention to allay the possibility of perpetuating the cycle of unintended offence (I’m sure they are both staunch Oban Times subscribers).
The event was excellent and the readers were captivating. The delivery of excerpts from their respective books, the discussion of their work and the answers to questions from the audience were those that could only be given by masters of language. Their charisma, honesty and warmth came across clearly and the experience was greatly energising.
The opportunity to meet these two amazing men was not one to be missed, so after buying their books and having copies signed, I waited for the queues to disperse and, filled with enthusiasm, took my chance to make what I thought might be a fascinating encounter.
I left shortly afterwards with my tail between my dejected legs having had a reaction akin to what one might expect had I tried to sell them a recipe book of dishes derived from different coloured cow dung.
After making a rather awkward goodbye and walking away feeling slightly disgruntled, I pondered the effect and the concept of such occurrences.   The conclusions I arrived at were much more forgiving than my initial and unfair reaction.
It also gave me stark reminder of how easily offence can be caused unintentionally in these circumstances and how careful one must be.
These two people had just spent an hour giving of their best to entertain a word-ravenous audience, they had hurriedly been asked to sign and write dedications on countless books, had been answering relentless questions from the book buyers and were probably in a bit of a hurry to get away.
As well as these obvious explanations, there are infinite other possible circumstances that may have led to their less than friendly reaction – maybe the poor fellows couldn’t understand my Tiree accent and went off wondering what on earth I had been saying to them. On my part, I had obviously chosen a bad time to instigate a conversation.
The experience has made me slightly terrified of possible encounters in the past where I may have similarly unintentionally caused offence. Having been on the receiving end of what felt like being snubbed by those whose performance I had just enjoyed, I now will be extra vigilant of my own manner when signing CDs and talking to audience members after a gig.
The giving and receiving of offence balances precariously on a tightrope, so regardless of the circumstances, we must be aware of this and at all times, be nice.