I wanted to give Charlie a hug. He had been yanked into the air by his wrist, yelled at, then whacked. He had got out of his pushchair and was caught by his distraught mother just as he was about to cross the kerb into the road. She was angry, he burst into tears, and I was saddened. Surely there was a better solution than a whack!
The reality is that making mistakes is part of life. Indeed it is probably essential; how could we learn without it? Children get used to being corrected. They know no other way, and in the main, it is taken as an acceptable affront rather than a painful invasion.
In adults, it is altogether different, more personal and more difficult to give and to receive correction. So we have developed solutions; rather than getting involved in the correcting business we use avoidance strategies. Technique ‘Number 1’ applies to the would-be corrector and is to avoid doing the correcting in the first place.
This strategy can be adopted out of politeness or respect, or for fear that a correction might engender reprisal, or be taken as a put-down – which in some circumstances it can be. For years I mispronounced a West African colleague’s five syllable family name, and it was only when I phoned his home and heard him say it on his voice message that I learned my error. In a very embarrassing few seconds, I discovered that for over a decade I had been pronouncing his name completely wrongly when introducing him to colleagues. My version would have been unrecognisable. I felt very embarrassed but was also angry. How much more I would have preferred a straight correction; but people prepared to take this sort of risk are rare.
Technique ‘Number 2’ applies to the person being corrected and takes the form of transient deafness; and thus the correction falls on deaf ears. I was trying to book a ticket to Paris and the booking clerk asked if I had a seating preference. “Would you prefer looking where you are going, or from where you have come?” I found this a stern test so said, “With my back to the engine.” To this she said, “Oh, you mean looking the wrong way?” This prompted me to correct her. “There is nothing ‘wrong’ about having ones back to the engine.” After a moment’s delay she repeated, “Looking the wrong way then?”
Our exchange was repeated twice and then I gave up. She was not angry, or perhaps I had failed to spot her sense of humour; she simply couldn’t or wouldn’t hear my attempted correction. This selective deafness approach is easy and commonplace; indeed, I often use it myself.
Now to technique ‘Number 3’. This applies to the corrector and aims at trying to make the other person not to see the correction as punitive, but rather as a valid learning experience. As a child, particularly with my father doing the correcting, I found it painful. His deep sighs, impatient finger tapping, fierce staring face and incredulity at my mistakes, meant that I just froze. The effect lasted for years. Now back in the classroom again, this time as a student of French, I make mistakes by the bucket-load, and while I would certainly prefer not to, at ‘school’ I see being corrected is helpful and welcome and not something that undermines or inhibits me. I tackle corrections face-on and welcome them. This is made easier partly because my teachers understand the process, and partly because I now feel much more secure. Nevertheless, if I found myself with a teacher who ridiculed me, I would get up and leave.
But mistakes also occur outside the classroom and the response here depends not on technique but on luck, and that is what happened a fortnight ago. You might remember that the water for the building site behind our house comes off a pipe at the back of our garden [Territorial Waters, 27 January 2013]. At the end of the work the company had agreed to contribute to our water bill and it was for me to send an invoice. When the time for this arrived, I gave the invoice to Bob the site manager to deliver to his head office. As I walked home I heard Bob puffing up behind me. He is a kind and considerate man and, with no hint of one-upmanship, he shouted, “Joe, I think you have spelt the word ‘check’ wrongly, it should be ‘cheque’. I would not want my accounts department to see a professor making a mistake!”
Within ten minutes I had rewritten the note and the corrected version was back in Bob’s hands. This time I wanted to give him a hug. His undemonstrative, straightforward help was refreshing. The correcting business is a minefield, and learning how to deal with ones mistakes and to correct and be corrected by others when errors arise, is invaluable.
Illustration: Men’s House of Correction (Oakum, under the Silent System) at the Middlesex House of Correction, Coldbath Fields. [Mayhew, “The Criminal Prisons of London and Scenes of Prison Life”, 1862]