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Conspiracy of Silence

Direct Answers 'Column for the week of January 12, 2004

I'm hoping you can help me with a moral problem that crops up every now and then in my personal and professional life. Sometimes I find myself being blamed for an error or lack of judgment that actually occurred on someone else's part. For example, I asked someone at work about using a certain location for a display, was given the go-ahead, then chastised for using that location.

When the only way I can defend myself involves pointing the finger at someone else, I'm in a real quandary. I am rarely prepared to defend myself if it means making someone else look bad. I handle the problem by saying nothing. I simply don't know what to say.

There is usually ample opportunity for the person responsible to come forward, but I find that hardly ever happens. How can I handle this type of problem without taking the low road of attacking others? What is the moral or ethical thing to do?


Karla, each of us has principles of behavior rattling around in our head. These principles range from the Golden Rule to Miss Manners' etiquette to the Boy Scout Creed. Often we are not sure which principle to apply.

The principle you are applying here is the playground and schoolyard rule which says one shouldn't snitch to a parent or teacher. It is not an ethical rule so much as a rule children employ in play. A much more basic rule applies. That is the rule which says, in simple justice, each of us deserves to be known for the person we are.

Your lack of explanations makes you look guilty. Coming forward and explaining why you acted as you did should not be a moral or ethical problem for you. It is simply a matter of fact. If you acted because Sheila told you to do it that way, or the employee handbook says to do it that way, or you have always done it that way and no one told you otherwise, you are simply reporting a fact.

You should look at this as an impersonal matter, much as if you are reporting the time or the weather. When you report facts in these situations, there are three rules to remember. The three rules are: don't apologize, don't apologize, and don't apologize. An apology is due when you have done something wrong; no apology is called for when stating the reality of a situation.

Karla, you don't have an ethical problem here, but the people who know the truth and remain silent do.


Missing Holiday Spirit

This Christmas I went to a lot of trouble to find special gifts for my grandchildren. I have some health challenges, and it was a stretch physically to shop for these gifts. Since I was in their neighborhood the week before Christmas, I left my presents under the tree ahead of time.

They expected me Christmas morning, and I called ahead to say I was on my way. When I arrived carrying two grocery bags with food, my grandson met me at the door saying he really liked the books. I couldn't believe my ears. They had opened my gifts without me!

I told my daughter I was disappointed, and she said she was "sorry" I hadn't left "instructions." Her husband told me they have a rule in their house: no whining. What should I do? Skip Christmas for them? Forgive and forget? Move?


Clara, if a tree falls in the forest and no one is there, does it still make a sound? If a child receives a gift and you are not there, is he still filled with joy?

Don't skip Christmas with your family. Next year take the gifts with you on Christmas morning, and be grateful for a son-in-law with such a wise rule for his household.


About the Author
Authors and columnists Wayne and Tamara Mitchell can be reached at

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