Yesterday I was at a professional development training session with a crowded room full of other teachers and school administrators. The facilitators had us moving around the room, switching seats and doing group activities. After one of these moves, the group I was in found itself one chair short. We didn't notice until one person was left standing.
She wasn't old, but clearly had at least a couple decades on me, probably nearing her sixties. The other people in the group ranged in age from around upper thirties to mid eighties, so I was clearly the youngest one there. Additionally, she was on the edge of the group, closest to my seat.
This woman showed no distress or dismay to be standing without a chair and assured us she wasn't bothered. To all appearances, she meant it and was not merely being polite. Nevertheless, I was a bit surprised that the other group members didn't make more of a fuss about finding her another chair, as usually tends to happen, but there was a lot going on and we were distracted.
This put me in an awkward spot. On the one hand, I felt she should be seated. Certainly, if one of us were to be standing, it should have been me, not her, as I was the youngest and should show her the courtesy of giving her my seat. This is a traditional gesture of respect for your elders. Additionally, the placement of our chairs meant that my seat was the most natural one to be offered, if anyone were to do it.
On the other hand, she genuinely didn't seem to mind standing, and I strongly suspected that if I offered her my seat, she would decline. This would be in keeping with the other, often more emphasized, value of equality running through our culture: she would feel disrespectful of me as a professional equal if she were to displace me. Or, if I persisted, she might feel that I was insinuating she looked feeble and wizened, like my dad sometimes feels when people on the C-train offer him their seat.
I felt that her refusal of my seat would not be an acceptable outcome for me. I suspected that her acceptance of my seat would not be an acceptable outcome for her, as we both wished to show respect and regard for the other.
So, when she finished saying, "Oh, it's fine," again, I said, "No. I don't like you standing while I'm sitting."
Either there was something in my voice or she's a true-blood Canadian, because her response was, "Oh. I'm sorry."
Sorry for putting me in an uncomfortable spot, I'm sure she meant, but as we both pushed through the crowd to collect one more chair, I mused on the strangeness of her apology. The irony is that she hadn't required me to do anything and she hadn't obliquely implied that I was socially inferior to her, and therefore she now felt that an apology was necessary! We both valued respect; the confusion was in how to demonstrate it. Happily, we were both savvy enough to negotiate the situation together and find a solution that worked for us both.
What a strange world when values collide with themselves like that.
"Our glasses are not the only glasses. By seeing that there is another way of seeing, we see our own way of seeing for the first time." Bernard T. Adeney