Dear Conflict Coach,
I messed up. I always thought the candy painted skulls were a really cool Halloween decoration, and I told my roommate (who is from South America) that I thought we should decorate with that because it’s really cool art from the way their home country celebrates Halloween. My roommate got really quiet and then told me that they aren’t Mexican and that the skulls aren’t for Halloween anyway. After that, my roommate left the room, and we haven’t had a meaningful conversation since. I still don’t fully know what I did wrong, but I get that I hurt their feelings. How do I tell them that I didn’t mean to insult them?
-Not So Happy Halloween
Dear Not So Happy,
First, I want to appreciate that you are reflecting on your own role in this. So often, when we do something that hurts someone else, we respond quickly in defense of our own actions. That’s normal, because most of us rightly believe we are good people who didn’t intend any harm. You’ve already done some good work in acknowledging that your action did harmfully impact your roommate.
Continuing to resist the urge to defend yourself will be important. That includes resisting the urge to focus on your good intent. I understand your urge to explain that you didn’t mean to insult them. The best way to demonstrate your good intentions isn’t by describing them, but by demonstrating that you know your impact (harmful) didn’t match your intent (to include your roommate's whole self in decorating).
In this situation, I highlight two issues that you can work to address as ways to demonstrate your good intentions and improve your ability to navigate cross-cultural situations in the future:
- Do what you can to understand your roommate’s identity, including inviting them to share more if they are comfortable. As one example, you’ve said your roommate is from South America, and maybe you kept this vague to protect your anonymity, but when talking to your roommate, use the same language they do to describe their identity. If they call themselves “South American” that’s fine, but in order to show that you do care about their identity, letting them name that and then you using that naming (unless they tell you otherwise) is important.
- Take ownership of your own education about cultural representations that interest you. Calaveras (the skulls) and Dia de los Muertos (the holiday) are meaningful cultural symbols, and it’s fine to admire their aesthetic. Instead of just admiring their superficial image, take the time to learn about the significance. Doing that about this (or other cultural symbols) will help you avoid causing cross-cultural harm in the future.
Once you’ve started to take those steps, repairing the relationship with your roommate can begin with an apology. To apologize effectively, you need to do more than say, “I’m sorry. I didn’t mean to hurt your feelings.” These are the key elements of an effective apology:
- Describe the impact of your actions. This illustrates that you understand the harm you caused. You might say something like, “I realize that I ignored the specific aspects of your identity that are important and I assumed that Dia de los Muertos was the same as Halloween. Those cultural assumptions illustrated my ignorance and hurt your feelings. Is that right?”
- Acknowledge that you were responsible for the harm. Avoiding any expression that minimizes your own responsibility (like, “I didn’t mean to hurt your feelings”) is essential.
- Express regret by saying something like, “I am so sorry. I really care about our relationship and I know my cultural assumptions damaged it. I hope that I can rebuild that trust.”
- Commit to a behavior that you will stop doing so that the harm does not continue. Perhaps it works for you to say, “I will stop assuming that other cultures are just versions of my culture or another culture.”
- Commit to start doing something to prevent future harm. An example might be, “I will be sure that I use the same language other people do to talk about their identity.”
Also be ready for the possibility that your roommate isn’t ready to talk about this or forgive you. Offering the apology and the harm repair is an important step to make you feel right with yourself and to give a pathway towards a better roommate relationship. Respecting your roommate’s timeline for accepting your apology is another way to show that you care about the impact you had on them.
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