Benefit of doubt

One morning, my classmate Ram approached me as soon as I came out of a classroom and asked if I could spare a few minutes to discuss a very urgent personal matter on which he needed my advice. I had some work to attend to, but seeing the worried look on Ram’s face, I immediately took him to a quiet corner, where Ram started narrating his tale of woe.

That morning, during a discussion about his Final Year Project Report, Ram’s Advisor, Prof. Ravi suddenly flew into a rage without any provocation whatsoever, told Ram that he did not want to have anything to do with him henceforth, and ordered Ram out of his office.

I was baffled. Prof. Ravi was a soft-spoken gentleman in his fifties. In the 3 years that I had known him, I had never seen him lose his composure even during intense discussions. I told Ram that he must have inadvertently said something to provoke Prof. Ravi, and asked him what he had said just before Prof. Ravi’s sudden outburst. After a few seconds, he said, “Sir asked me if I had read the reference book that he had recommended. I replied that the library bugger had told me he would get it for me after a few days.”

“Did you say ‘library bugger’ or ‘librarian’ or ‘library man’? What were your exact words?” I asked.

“I said ‘library bugger’,” Ram replied.

The mystery had been solved! I told Ram that Prof. Ravi had almost definitely been upset by his using the word ‘bugger’. When I explained to him the possible meanings of the word, he understood, but became even more worried. I assured him that I would explain the matter to Prof. Ravi.

I went to Prof. Ravi’s office and explained to him that, since Ram had done his school education in vernacular medium, he was not well-versed in English. He had heard his college classmates use the word ‘bugger’ very freely and had assumed it was a fashionable synonym of ‘man’, completely unaware of the word’s meaning.

Prof. Ravi immediately called Ram, who had been waiting outside, assured him that all was well, and advised him not to use new words unless he was sure of their meaning.

Whenever anybody speaks or behaves in an uncharacteristically unpleasant manner, we must respond only after checking whether there is reason to give that person the benefit of doubt, maybe due to ignorance or because of circumstances that we may be unaware of.

36 thoughts on “Benefit of doubt

  1. These days some words like the one Ram used are commonly used.
    Another one is “bloody” as in “He bloody well do it!” when used at a meeting was taken as being ‘unparliamentary’.
    Yet another one is the famous four-letter “FO” routinely mouthed these days even by kids, not knowing what it implies, it is just because they’ve heard the adults make use of it in normal conversation.
    The fact of the matter is one needs to be careful in the course of talks on the use of terms.

  2. You’re right. We are not careful enough about the words we use or our reactions to other’s use of words, especially slang or derogatory words. Words are powerful things and you don’t get them back after they’re spoken. Nice piece.

    • Some words, expressions or gestures are acceptable in some places, while they are taboo in other places. Fortunately, information about this can be obtained before visiting a country for the first time or meeting a person from a different culture for the first time.

  3. Ha ha…I’m grinning here – although I do get the larger picture. Your story made me think of the time I was teaching in a college and the boys of some years past had christened one of the other English lecturers, ‘Mr Bingley’ (from their study of Pride and Prejudice). Mr Bingley he stayed, even after the text book had changed and the new set of boys had no clue as to the origin of the naming. Sometimes boys would come to the staff room and ask for Mr Bingley!

  4. Great story and lesson! Benefit of doubt is a rare case given due to the impatience that we all breed. But this only leads to souring of relationships!

  5. wow interesting story..It reminds me of an incident in childhood. I had once used a word which was colloquial slang but I didn’t know that. I got a huge scolding from my mother.. Then I showed her the book where I had read it. It was one of the classics . She was dumbfounded.. My language teacher then told me that in previous days it was part of daily use and wasn’t derogatory .. But now it is so.. I am glad at learning how you helped your friend..

    • This happened to me once when I was speaking a recently learnt language. After that, whenever I speak in that language (or any other language that I’m not too familiar with), I first tell the other person(s) to correct me if I inadvertently say something wrong.

  6. That’s very thoughtful of you. Seriously, the hazards of using a new word !! I’ve landed in soup as a child when I’ve used words without knowing the meaning. A little knowledge is a dangerous thing 😀

    • I think almost every person has had this kind of experience for inadvertently saying/doing something unacceptable or for inadvertently not saying/doing something that’s expected. In some cases, the damage is not much. In Ram’s case, it could have been serious trouble for him.

  7. This is interesting.. It would be common to expect someone to say that the prof has lost it, and further spoil the situation.. But this was the right way out

  8. Communication is the key to solving any problem / misunderstanding. Sometimes fear or ego makes us silent & this worsens the problem.

  9. In the past few weeks a lot of such things have been happening which have brought to my mind the same thought. How quickly we jump to conclusions no?


  10. You know what .. I use this word very endearingly in my conversations to refer to some of our common male friends .. little did i know that it had a derogatory meaning to it… I googled up the meaning and i think i will be careful in using it in the future.

  11. This made me laugh a great deal! I have many friends from all over the world and it never fails to amaze me how those of us using the English language can still, seemingly, be using different languages at times. There are many words used freely by Americans, for instance, which you just can’t get away with in the UK – ‘fanny’ being one.

    Likewise, my New Zealand and Australian friends use many words – including ‘bugger’ – completely innocently which can’t be used elsewhere. ‘Bugger’ is perfectly acceptable and even appears on children’s TV shows.

    It reminds me of when my wife and I were young and soon to marry. She was from the north of the UK and I from the south. In front of the priest who we wanted to marry us she referred to something as ‘crap’ and I was horrified! Where I grew up this was a very rude word. For my wife – whose parents were stricter than mine with language – it was a perfectly innocent word and acceptable even for children to use.

    Aren’t we humans a strange breed? 🙂

  12. I totally agree with you. There have been times I used to jump to conclusions when teaching in my early years. Later, I realised that students coming from a vernacular medium used words they had heard but not understood. How beautifully expressed, Pro!


  13. Bugger is commonly used in Aussie slang… You say it when you hit your toe…Bugger! Someone can be a funny bugger or cheeky bugger… or you can tell someone to bugger off… There is even a whole series of Toyota Ads that use the word… it’s really not offensive there

  14. This is so true :). Communication is certainly a very intricate affair, and everyone responds to a situation through their own personal touch and personal problems and it is certainly not a reflection on the situation but on the person who is telling it. The same matter when told differently holds a completely different meaning altogether,

    No wonder that the ace communicators are paid so much 😉


  15. Pingback: Putting ourselves in the other person’s shoes | Proactive Indian

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