That’s Not What I Meant

Why this phrase doesn’t always cut it. 

Today’s post is about intentions.

I was once firm believer that all that mattered was a person’s intentions. The outcome wasn’t important as long as the action was performed with good intentions. I think I mostly believed this to make myself feel better when my plans were botched. 

A little later, I became a believer in the idea that it is not the intentions that matter, but the outcome. 

Now I find myself somewhere in the middle. There are times when intention does count over outcome, and there are times when outcome matters more than intention. 

I want to narrow the focus of my post a little more and discuss the things people say. I know as well as anyone that what we mean and what we say don’t always match up. I also know that they never will, at least not while we’re living and using language as it is. While we can’t be perfect and guarantee that what we mean will always be understood, I think we can do better and try harder to make ourselves understood correctly.

It’s problematic to me when people say something unintentionally rude or offensive and then try to brush it off, saying, “that’s not what I meant.” This happens a lot, and the speaker generally does not take responsibility for their words, hiding behind their intentions without explaining them. 

I think “that’s not what I meant” is a start. But it needs to be accompanied with a few things. I need to know what the speaker actually meant, and I would like the speaker to think and realize what they could have said instead. Most of all, I would like an apology.

It seems like people think they don’t have to apologize for being offensive if they didn’t mean to be offensive. This is where the idea of the outcome comes into a play. Even if you didn’t mean to offend me, I was/am offended. You poor choice of words hurt me, and I can’t just drop that–at least not immediately–because it isn’t what you meant. 

Now, I know that not every situation requires these steps. Sometimes “that’s not what I meant” does cut it. But sometimes it doesn’t. And sometimes it’s hard to tell what’s needed.

Sometimes it’s hard to tell if the person to whom you’re speaking gets what you meant or not. So it is also the responsibility of the listener to let the speaker know if they said something offensive.

I have a hard time with this one, but I can’t expect people to take responsibility for their words if I never give them the chance to do so. I think it can be as easy as asking some questions like “What did you mean when you said…?” and then going from there. If they meant what you interpreted, then you can talk about why that was offensive. If they meant something other than what you interpreted, you can explain to them that you interpreted it differently and why you did that. 

I read an interview with feminist extraordinaire Judith Butler recently. I was impressed with a lot of things in this article, but one of the main ones was the way she took responsibility for her words. Her response to accusations of not considering transsexual people in her writing on gender performativity is awesome:

“Gender Trouble was written about 24 years ago, and at that time I did not think well enough about trans issues. Some trans people thought that in claiming that gender is performative that I was saying that it is all a fiction, and that a person’s felt sense of gender was therefore “unreal.” That was never my intention. I sought to expand our sense of what gender realities could be. But I think I needed to pay more attention to what people feel, how the primary experience of the body is registered, and the quite urgent and legitimate demand to have those aspects of sex recognized and supported. I did not mean to argue that gender is fluid and changeable (mine certainly is not). I only meant to say that we should all have greater freedoms to define and pursue our lives without pathologization, de-realization, harassment, threats of violence, violence, and criminalization. I join in the struggle to realize such a world.” (emphasis my own) – See more at:

Here, Butler does a wonderful job of taking responsibility, clarifying what she meant, admitting she was wrong, and acknowledging what she could have done differently.

It was pointed out to me that maybe I’m asking too much of people. Can I realistically expect people to do these things every time they offend me? Maybe I’m being too sensitive.

My response: Maybe I am too sensitive, but, like I’ve pointed out here, sensitivity is not a chore. It shouldn’t be too much to ask for people to take responsibility for their words. I know a lot of people never will. I know I won’t get as many apologies as I would like. But if one person does start to take responsibility for their words, then that’s awesome. And because thinking this way has helped me start being better at checking what I say, it’s a win for me.


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