“Birds are entangled by their feet and men by their tongues” (an Asian saying).
While waiting at the post office the other day, a man came up behind me with a tubby little girl in tow. She eyed my ample figure and gray hair as she sucked on a blue lollipop. “I like your dress and your necklace,” she said. I thanked her and told her the necklace had been my mother’s. She paused, and then said, “You must be getting old and decrepit, too!” I continued to smile, but my smile was growing a bit tight at the corners.
“I am?” I asked.
“Yes,” she said with a bright smile. “My dad says I’m getting old and decrepit!” Since her father was standing there listening with a wide grin on his face, I decided to play along.
“You are!” I replied.
“Yep!” she said. “I don’t know how that can be since I’m only five and a half!” Her hand splayed out like a starfish.
Dad spoke up. “I tell her she’s getting old and decrepit because her teeth are coming loose,” he said with a fond smile.
“You wanna see?” she asked, and proceeded to show me forthwith.
I can only assume that, to her, “old and decrepit” meant “young and beautiful”—and apparently, “comfortable to chat with.” I thought her candor and charm would take her far in life.
This little girl had no intention of maligning an elderly lady. We, too, make verbal errors as adults. A remark that we intended as a comment or a bit of humor, taken wrong by the hearer, can quickly cloud a conversation or a relationship. We intended to stroke a dove, but we find a hawk on our hands.
What can we do to help when our intention is misunderstood and a friendship has gone sour?
The first thing to do is to make amends as best as we are able. Sometimes stirring around in an already muddy puddle only further dirties the water. We can try to clear things up by saying, “I’m sorry. I must not have expressed myself well.” This allows the other person to save face, and may redeem the situation.
If that doesn’t work, making a detailed apology may help—and the sooner the better. If the verbal faux pas was serious, perhaps a written apology would be better. It provides no opportunity for direct retaliation and gives a bit of time between the gaffe and the apology for tempers to cool.
In the case of a very serious misunderstanding, a small gift and an apology card may be in order. Some touching “I’m sorry” cards on the market nowadays would require a very hard heart to ignore.
Both the offender and the offended must cooperate for an apology to become effective. If we have asked for forgiveness and there is still a rift, we can only pray for hearts to be healed. The offended one may not forgive us, but God always does.
We all put a foot in our mouths occasionally, without intending to do so. What we say can have serious consequences, even though we didn’t intend to wound anyone. Solomon, the wisest man who ever lived, advised, “He who holds his tongue is wise” (Proverbs 10:19, NIV). He also said, “He who guards his mouth and his tongue keeps himself from calamity” (21:23). A short prayer in the morning may keep us from a slip of the tongue during the day.