A completely inadequate inventory of everything I’ve done wrong, item 1.
One time in Canada
I was working there on a commercial production. I was in a conference room after a meeting had ended, me and a few of the other Americans from the ad agency. We were talking about the nightlife in Toronto. I said apparently the bars stop serving alcohol at 2 a.m., but they keep serving food until 4. And then I added, because it just popped into my head and I thought it would be a terrific joke, “and those stupid Canadians, they just stay there.” A young woman from the Canadian production company, who was working in the room, said, “I heard that.” and she stormed out.
It was an awful moment for everyone. I thought my joke would play perfectly. I assumed, since everyone here must see me as the sweetheart that I obviously am, that they’ll know I’m making fun of dumb Americans with my genius bit. I changed my voice when I did it, like, to sound more crass and dumb. But the woman heard it differently.
I don’t remember how the apology went down. That’s the weird part of this story. I remember very clearly the moment she stormed out, and how the blood rushed to my face and how intense my regret was. I’m piecing the rest of this together based on who I believe I am and what I believe I must have done.
I think I announced to the rest of the room that I would go find this woman and apologize immediately. I think there was someone in the room who said I should let her cool off. I have a general sense that as I sat there in the minutes after she stormed out, looking ill, some people made an effort to tell me my joke was fine and she was way off base. I remember that then someone else made a joke to try to transition our conversation. This was his joke: “Do you know how to get 30 Canadians into a phone booth? You ask.”
Looking back on that joke he told, I think he was saying it as a way to let me know why my own joke hurt her: that Canadians are nice, and if you tell a nice person a joke where you yourself are being mean in character, there’s a good chance she won’t hear it as a joke. All she’ll hear is you’re being mean. In her mind, meanness is not something to be made fun of; It’s just meanness.
I realize that this is not true of all Canadians. There are plenty of sarcastic bitter people up there who, like Americans and Klingons before battle, like to ritualize anger to establish control over it in some way. But she was just hurt.
I know I apologized to her, but I can’t remember the specifics of the conversation. I think that’s how apologies work. It’s so much about the gesture, I bet most people can’t recall the actual text of their apologies. I know that I sat with my guilt for a day before I was scheduled to be on set with her. I know I went out and bought a Canada t-shirt and wore it to the set the next day. I know I talked to her, but I don’t remember what I said and I don’t remember what she said.