Sayin’ Somethin’ Stupid

An encounter with a gracious Glaswegian and a comment remembered from a decades-old sexual assault case in Edmonton come together to remind me that I can always choose how I respond, both to silly comments and to egregiously offensive ones.


I haven’t actually seen that, but, yeah, potentially.

In our back-row seat, the Big Guy nudges me with his elbow and I turn my head in a mute, What? Just as quietly, he subtly inclines his head toward the front of the van, where our Glaswegian tour guide has just wrapped up his answer to an earnest and sort of silly question from one of our tour group.

Ah, I think. This is what he was talking about. After a week listening to various interactions betwixt this tour leader and our fellow tourees, the Big Guy has broken the code.

It always starts the same way. Walking or riding, someone spots something and asks the guide about it.

What bird/flower/bush/tree/crop/mountain/river/ruined castle is that?

For these questions — a genuine if sometimes casual request for information — the matter ends there. But other questions lead to more back-and-forth.

The last three churches I’ve seen have all been converted into coffee houses or art galleries. Where do people worship?

What do those different coloured markings on the sheep mean?

Why is that blackbird chasing that hawk?

These matters do not end with the tour guide’s response. These become conversations about how the locals live — the people and the animals. Looking for something other than enlightenment — interaction? validation of a point of view? — the questioner challenges the guide’s response, offering a different answer. Frequently a silly answer: After all, whose country is it? And who holds the advanced degree in the environmental sciences?

And so we listen as our young guide neatly sidesteps having to tell a customer that they’re wrong.

I haven’t actually seen that, but, yeah, potentially.

After a while, it becomes a running if silent joke between us. We try to guess which questions will eventually lead to that response. And, ruefully, we try to remember whether any of our conversations with him have ended with that gently damning conclusion.

Yeah, potentially. Spoken with the closest we can muster to the Glaswegian accent, this phrase has become a lasting souvenir of our 2012 trip, working its way into our own discourse. It’s also become a handy construct for observing the discourse of others. How often we hear an expert interviewee say its equivalent to an earnest and slightly silly interviewer on radio or TV.

Of course, sidestepping the issue when someone is wrong isn’t always the way to go. A few decades ago, a police officer testifying in an assault case — one of the domestic violence variety — said something very like this in trying to convey the extremely poor state of the housekeeping at the scene of the alleged crime: If that had been my house, I’d have hit her, too.

Gotcha! Journalists scrambled to find the strongest reaction. One cleverly called the director of a shelter for abused women, and breathlessly waited for the cutting remarks. The outrage. The moral indignation.

This is what they got: I think we’ve all said stupid things under pressure.

I was staggered by the unflinching grace of that response. Unflinching in calling the police officer’s comment exactly what it was; grace in not going for his jugular.

Of course, a slightly silly or uninformed view of the world can’t be equated with a comment that, taken literally, would be justifying criminal assault. That’s one reason, I think, why my ever-helpful subconscious lately laid them out for me, side by side: to put silly in perspective. Again.

And maybe to remind me that even for the egregiously stupid comment, I have the option of going hard on the issue, soft on the person.

And maybe to see what that young Glaswegian said in another light, and to take heart. Many things are possible: even change in me.

I haven’t actually seen that, but, yeah, potentially.

This entry was posted in Relationships and Behaviour, Thinking Broadly and tagged . Bookmark the permalink.

8 Responses to Sayin’ Somethin’ Stupid

  1. What fun it is to get old (wise?):
    Observing the small stuff, the patterns, forgiving.
    Taking home from trips those unexpected, free, phrases that explain so much.
    Priceless. The souvenir that keeps on giving. 😀

    • Isabel Gibson says:

      Barbara – Yes, one never knows what you’ll come home with, from new expressions to new points of view!

  2. Ouch. You raise issues of ignorance and of the gendering of domestic roles by the police that are far from trivial. I was present when a female police officer made a precisely similar arrogant remark about “the filth” of used clothing of a family with three tots that had been dumped into the basement stairwell enroute to an unusable washing machine at the foot of the stairs. All of the houses on the south side of the country road had been without well water for laundry washing or for any other purpose for three weeks due to drought, a fairly common occurrence in this part of rural Ontario during the summer. Drinking water had to be purchased. My laundry area, which sometimes can provide a deeper aquifer for less fortunate neighbours, was a similar mess, as were other parts of the houses deprived of running water. The limited laundering facilities in the village require money, transportation, and long time-outs from other pressing needs in the home. Furthermore, the police officer was not intellectually equipped to assess the condition of the actual assailant (not the accused), in this case the female partner, who has a psychiatric history since childhood. Our unconstitutional “rape shield” law (1983) that assumes the innocence of females and prevents males from obtaining a fair trial (as confirmed by a supreme court judgement and opinion in 1991) has led to such impertinent opinions from ill-informed constabulary becoming entrenched as part of a badly broken system of legal “justice.” The opinions and decisions to arrest made by the police are taken as prima facie evidence of a crime that the defendant is prevented from ever refuting because such a process is onerous. As the present government considers female prostitutes also to be victims of johns without reference to further facts in the matter, we can expect the opinions of the police to take a larger and larger role in their judgements of males in compromising circumstances that will inevitably lead to unfair final judgements on the bench. I haven’t actually seen that, but, yeah, potentially.

    • Isabel Gibson says:

      Laurna – How hard it is to identify the biases we bring to every situation, every judgement – how what we believe colours what we even see. Funny – I don’t find it so tough to identify bias in others . . . This may be the single best reason for not isolating ourselves into cliques defined by age, gender, occupation, political beliefs and so on. We need to be challenged by those who see things differently, to help us remember that none of us has the whole truth.

  3. Mary Gibson says:

    Excellent article and I will do my best to remember the useful catchphrase: “Hard on the issue, soft on the person” in my consulting work. I’m afraid I’ve too often (at a minimum in work situations) been hard on the latter because of the screw up (in my eyes) on the former.

    On the issue of political correctness and inability to see that people often say “stupid things under pressure” see recent controversy over ESPN commentator suspended for saying (buried in a mass of explicatory context) that it was worth finding out whether the victim had in any way provoked the attack.

    • Isabel Gibson says:

      Mary – Yeah, I first ran into the phrase working around folks who were handling labour negotiations and it was a rude awakening for me. I’d never thought to separate the issue and the person. Not that I necessarily manage to stay awake! But potentially.

  4. Hi Isabel. I, too, appreciate hearing about the “yeah, potentially” response and wish only for the wisdom to use it instead of defaulting to trying to prove my view is correct (and complete, for that matter). One of my communities has tried to teach me to use the phrase “you may be right” in exactly the same situation. For me, it’s been about learning that not every hill is worth dying on. Who knew?

    • Isabel Gibson says:

      Lorna – There are a whole bunch of similar sayings, from Lord Balfour’s “Nothing matters very much; very few things matter at all” to a now-retired General’s phrase about “a range of acceptable alternatives.” But they don’t all speak the same way to everyone, which is why it’s good, I think, to revisit the theme in new ways.

Comments are closed.