Responsibility vs. Blame: When 'Me-First' Is a Good Thing
Photo by Andy Dean Photography/Shutterstock
Traffic slows to a crawl on the highway because of construction blocking the right lane, and I dutifully merge left. But then I see one car speeding down the right lane to zip in front of everyone at the last second. All of us are trying to get to work, to family, to the next exit because our child in the back seat just announced he needs to visit a restroom ASAP. Yet this guy zooming past me on the right thinks he’s special. He thinks he should be first in line. This is one of those “me-first” moments that really frustrates me (as my children in the backseat can confirm).
But there’s another, more subtle kind of “me-first” (or “I-first,” technically) behavior that I’ve been thinking about lately, and I think it’s a good thing. It can start with a simple choice of how we phrase a sentence. Consider these examples:
“That test was confusing.” vs. “I was confused on that test.”
“My computer isn’t working.” vs. “I can’t get my computer to work correctly.”
Each of those pairs of sentences basically conveys the same fact, but how we choose to phrase it — what comes first in the sentence — can have a big impact on whether we’re inclined toward blame or responsibility.
“That test was confusing” can pretty quickly lead to “My teacher doesn’t know how to make tests,” or “The study guide didn’t prepare me well,” or “My teacher never taught me that material.” It’s about blame. Sometimes blame can feel reassuring. “It’s not MY fault.”
If I'm honest, I have to admit that I'm often instinctively drawn toward blame in difficult moments. Blame is easy. When we blame, we don’t bear responsibility ourselves. And because responsibility normally involves hard work, blame means less work for us.
The problem with blame is that it’s a dead-end road. If our goal is for things to get better, then we need responsibility, not blame. Someone needs to step up, roll up their sleeves and commit to the work required to make things better. But saying “Someone ought to do something” doesn’t get us much farther than blame does.
“I was confused on that test, so I ought to do something about it.” What can I do? Maybe I can go see my teacher to explain my confusion and seek help. Maybe I can study more or differently next time. Putting myself first in this sentence opens me up to more work, yes, but it also empowers me and reminds me that I have the ability to make things better. I’m not helpless in this situation. There are lots of possibilities before me that I can control.
With this in mind, I’m going to recommit to paying close attention to how I phrase my sentences in difficult moments when I’m frustrated, hurt or disappointed. And I’m going to try to help my children be more attentive to what they say and how they respond in their own similar moments. The difference between whether circumstances improve or not could be the difference between whether we pursue the path of blame or the path of responsibility, and that could all be set in motion by the very first word we say.
Tim Tinnesz is Head of School of St. Timothy’s School in Raleigh and sits on the Board of Directors of the North Carolina Association of Independent Schools. St. Timothy’s is an Episcopal preparatory school that weaves service opportunities into the curriculum to encourage students to make a positive difference in their community and world. In addition to being a lifelong educator, Tim is a father to three sons, ages 5, 8 and 9.