Incident, Mistake, and Wrong

What do we say when we have to admit that our actions/attitudes didn't work as we expected? Our response, in preferred order, is usually as follows.

  1. Something bad happened.
  2. We made a mistake.
  3. We were wrong.

…While the other side prefers them in the opposite order. Okay, we know.

A well-known example of this expectation mismatch appears in an open letter written by a writer fired from TechCrunch for soliciting gifts. This is how the culprit acknowledged his wrongdoings.

In some way or another, a line was crossed that should have never been.

It's just a statement; there is not even a word of “sorry.” But as much as we would like to label this guy as a liar/chicken, we must admit that we all try to do what he did, and that's why his response makes us so upset. We try to deflect the blame with the same passion as when we try to spearhead the accusation.


The blamer/blamed relation is like a well-choreographed fight sequence. Hold your sword in one hand, your shield in the other (and make sure you have a well-matched opponent). Once the fight begins, despite the death/life tension, the interaction starts to look like dancing or even figure skating. You thrust the sword and the opponent turns it aside with his shield; vice versa. Sometimes we don't even notice we are taking predictable turns.


The good thing is that we are fighting on fair ground. The bad thing is that the fight continues forever, especially when the parties are at equal levels.

I admire Jackie Chan, but 10 minutes of this? 9.5 minutes too long.


What all of us should want, in the end (and in the beginning), is to finish it off quickly, as demonstrated by the world's most famous professor:


But most of the time, we prefer the long, hard, and brutal version, both as an audience and as a player.




The answer has eluded me for years, especially because I myself have the same tendency to join choreographed discussion/fights (mostly on the defensive side), knowing what they take. I now think it is because we are NOT actually discussing the subject, after all. In this blame game, our focus is always on the same issue, regardless of the nature of the problem: us.

  • When we defend ourselves, we are trying to dodge the accusations that point toward us.
  • When we blame someone, we are trying to point the accusations toward him or her.

We aren't trying to solve the problem; We are trying to communicate. And because communication itself is pleasure (it might even be our raison d'être), we tend to engage in fruitless fighting. In fact, the more prolonged the discussion is, the better; the definition of a good game is that it can continue forever (ask any game designer or TV show producer).


To break out of this mold, we consciously need to change the subject (person) to something else…what about the problem itself? Then "I made a mistake," the second less-favorite response, starts to look attractive. Admitting a mistake seems to work well because:

  1. The person still takes responsibility (the accuser will be satisfied).
  2. The focus shifts from the person to the incident (from making to mistake)
  3. The analysis of the "mistake" follows (completing the shifting of the subject)

As far as I know, the people who have mastered this subject-shifting technique is Israeli businesspeople. During several years of working at an Israeli company, whenever they had to admit errors, they always–always–made the "it was a mistake" statement. It still pissed off some people, especially Japanese customers who are too accustomed to hear apologies (long story), but it did move things forward.


Wait. If they are that specialized in moving things forward, how come they are continuing their struggles with their neighbors for…two millennia?