Dear Carolyn: My boyfriend and I are avid readers, and he recently finished a book by a well-known author with a very distinct writing style. He decided to read a new book by this same author, which I have read. When we were sitting down last Sunday to read over coffee, he pulled out his book, to which I said, “That book is wild! I think you are going to like it.”
He got upset that I ruined his chance at having an unadulterated first impression while reading it. I replied, “I’m sorry you feel that way, but I really didn’t mean to ruin anything, and I don’t think I did ruin anything — this author has a wild writing style.” This, in his eyes, was a non-apology, which I admitted it was, and told him I would never say anything about a book ahead of time again.
It led us to a conversation about how beholden the offender ought to be to apologize when he or she thinks that there has been an overreaction. I know overreaction is totally in the eye of the beholder, but even my boyfriend admitted his reaction was a bit much, especially since I really didn’t mean to ruin anything for him; a lot hinges on the descriptive “wild” here.
What do you think? If someone overreacts, can the original offender let him or her know that he or she thinks that? Is that unfeeling? Or does it just totally depend on the situation?
Carolyn says: If anything, it’s the opposite — it totally depends on the aggregate.
When you take each situation individually, there’s always a way to spin it into one person’s overreaction or, from the other side, one person’s dismissiveness of the other’s feelings.
Especially when both of you think you’re right, it can be hard to tell who actually is — and in that little gap of doubt is where so many abusers or potential abusers plant seeds of self-doubt. Maybe I am being too sensitive, you start to think, or maybe I was being thoughtless, and bit by bit you release your grasp of your version of what’s true in favor of the other person’s.
When you take situations as a group, though, you get a remarkably clear picture of overreactions and how to respond to them.
An example by way of explanation: Let’s say an avid-reader friend has one overreaction to one generic comment on one book in one situation. In that case, the apt response forms itself.
[Pause, raise eyebrows] “You OK?” Because that’s what you tend to wonder when an otherwise reasonable person has utterly taken leave of his or her sense of proportion.
If instead an avid-reader friend overreacts on a fairly regular but also unpredictable basis, rooted in an expectation of mind-reading believed to be legitimate and justified — to the point where you find yourself trying to choose your words in advance so as to avoid triggering such overreactions, and/or the ensuing accusations of non-apology apologies, and/or follow-up conversations about ways you can be wrong in an argument even when you’re right — then it’s time to form a different, equally apt response:
Know manipulation when you see it, and get out as soon as you can.
E-mail Carolyn Hax at email@example.com, or chat with her at 11 a.m. Friday at washingtonpost.com.