The Blame Game: Things were done, mistakes were made.

Note: This is a re-post of something that I put up on a student discussion forum as part of one of my first-year teaching courses. I write a number of longer posts to the students to discuss some of the things that are not strictly Computer Science but can be good to know. One of my colleagues asked me to put it up in a place where he could refer to it even after the original forum was closed, so here it is.

The Irish Central Bank recently released a 10 Euro coin with a quote from James Joyce on it. Regrettably, they got the quote wrong by inserting a ‘that’ which was not in the original quote. While this is hardly newsworthy usually, I want to draw your attention to the way that the bank handled this error.

According to the bank, the coin was “an artistic representation of the author and text and not intended as a literal representation”. In fact, “the text on the Joyce coin does not correspond to the precise text as it appears in Ulysses” and “the error is regretted”.

The error is regretted? By whom? This is a delightful example of the passive voice, frequently used because people wish to avoid associating the problem with themselves. Before this coin hit the mint, people could see the graphic design and the mistake would have been there. Was the error with the original brief, the designer, the people who should have been proofing? (The actual ‘apology’ is even worse as it says “While the error is regretted” and then goes on to try and weasel out.)

Look, the blame game is seductive because people love to allocate blame and, frankly, blame assignation is not very productive because it doesn’t fix the existing problem and, worse, it rarely fixes the future problem. However, the error (in this case) did not leap into the printing presses at the mint due to run-away nanotechnology – in this case, the producing organisation (the bank) should have said “Argh, sorry. We made a mistake.” and then gone on with the offers of refunds – but more importantly, having accepted that it was their error, they would have the mental gears engaged to make changes to stop it happening again. Right now, the bank is trying to wriggle out of a mistake, which might fool people inside the bank into thinking that this is how you deal with errors – through “after the fact” passive apology, rather than taking responsibility and doing some proper proof-reading!

Years ago, I worked with a guy whose motto was “Don’t tell me that you knew it wasn’t going to work. Tell me when you think that and tell me how we’re going to fix it.” Don’t just play the blame and “I told you so” game, be active and try to fix things!

But let’s bring this closer to home. Running late for a lecture? What happened? Was the traffic really bad – or did you not allow enough time to get there, having expected really good traffic? “The traffic was awful” is a great excuse occasionally but all the time? “I didn’t allow enough time for the traffic.” What does this mean? Allow more time! Be active! Take control (if you can). If you’re on a dire bus route, then you may have to think about other ways to deal with it – perhaps you just can’t allow enough time for the awful traffic. In that case, what do you need to do in order to get the lecture content? What do you need to let the lecturer know so that we can help you?

See the difference? If “the traffic is awful” then we have no solutions because a million cars and the Adelaide City traffic computers are beyond your control. If “I have a problem with time” then it is easier to start thinking about ways to fix this that involve you.

When you think to yourself “the assignment wasn’t completed on time”, who was actually responsible for that? Note, I’m not talking about assigning blame – I’m talking about taking responsibility. If you didn’t finish the assignment on time because you didn’t start early enough, then you have started the mental processes that lead to a potential conclusion of “Oh, I should start working on things a bit earlier.” Were you sick? Should you have organised a med cert or spoken to the lecturer?

Responsibility doesn’t have to be a burden but it does give you a reason to exercise your agency, your capacity to act and to make change in the world. If all of your problems are in the passive voice, then “assignments are handed in late”, “the money ran out”, “mistakes were made” rather than “I didn’t start early enough or put enough time in or I was horribly ill and thought I could just push through”, “I spent all of my money too quickly.” and “I made a mistake”.

Obviously, a false declaration of responsibility, where you have no intention of changing, is just as bad as weasel words in the passive voice. Saying “I made a mistake” achieves nothing unless you try and change what you’re doing to stop it happening again.

When you feel that you are responsible for something, you are more likely to devote time and effort to it. The way that you describe the things in your life can help to remind you of what you are responsible for and where you can take charge and try to bring about a positive change. Language is powerful – it can really help to focus the mind on what you need to do to get the best out of everything. Use it!

(Edit: This is now in the comments but after the original post, I linked to an article on one set of steps students could use to write a real apology. You can find it here. Thanks for the nudge, Liz!)


5 Comments on “The Blame Game: Things were done, mistakes were made.”

  1. lizphillips says:

    Nick,

    May I make a lesson out of this post? I would like to use the way we word our excuses and then–gasp–have students answer critical thinking questions, write a two-paragraph response, and then create a graphic representation on blame.

    Just when I was ready to quit, you give me something REALLY good!

    Liz

    Like

  2. I wish I could print it out and force every manager at one of my former places of employment to read it and grasp it. The motto there was “Fix the blame, not the problem!” because unless you knew whose fault it was, it was apparently impossible to begin fixing it. **sigh**

    Like

    • nickfalkner says:

      It makes ‘allocating blame’ something that denotes achievement, which is counter-productive. One of my senior managers made a very amusing observation the other day “Oh, you had a Skype call, that’s only one step away from action.” (In a nice way, I hasten to add.) It’s a nice way to think about the things we do on the way to actually achieving something, which don’t count as achievement BY THEMSELVES.

      Glad you liked it!

      Cheers,
      Nick.

      Like

  3. […] Nick Falkner describes this use of passive well in The Blame Game: Things were done, mistakes were made: […]

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