Sunday, July 17, 2016

Should old classmate apologize for childhood behavior?

Several weeks ago, M.N., a reader from Boston was making his daily commute to work on his city's subway line. Wanting to get a little extra exercise on a good weather day, he got off the train two stops early so he could walk the final mile or so to work.

As he was leaving the station, M.N. noticed a woman who looked familiar. It then registered that he had gone to grade school and high school with the woman a few decades ago. While they were never close friends, she had friended him on Facebook several months earlier. That's how he recognized her when he saw her.

"Annabel?" he asked, as he neared her on the station platform (although that's not her real name). She looked over, acknowledged him, and they exchanged pleasantries, agreeing that they should try to get together some time for lunch or coffee.

But while M.N. was not close to Annabel when they were growing up together, he remembers distinctly how many members of his class used to pick on Annabel, making fun of her looks or awkward style. M.N. can't remember if M.N. was anymore awkward than other classmates. While he didn't join in the teasing of Annabel, M.N. does recall that he never interceded when such events took place by telling any of his friends who were among those doing the teasing to stop.

M.N. vividly recalls Annabel being in tears or desperately trying to avoid her taunters in the hallway. He regrets that he never tried to put a stop to it back then. Now, however, he wondered whether he should have said anything to Annabel when they met on the subway platform.

"Should I have apologized for not having tried to stop some of the teasing, particularly when it came from friends I hung out with?" asks M.N. "Was I wrong to make small talk with Annabel without acknowledging those painful episodes?"

While it would have shown exceptional character for M.N. to go against his friends and discourage them from the teasing, he's likely not alone in turning a blind eye to such behavior. Perhaps fear of being teased himself kept him from interceding. The right thing would be for other students to stand up for any kids being bullied or teased and try to put a stop to it. Had M.N. done so back in the day that would likely have been good for both him and Annabel.

But M.N. can't undo what's done. Should he have brought up the teasing? It was certainly not necessary on such a brief encounter on a subway platform. That he acknowledged Annabel, and was gracious toward her was the right thing to do.

If M.N. and Annabel do decide to have coffee or lunch together sometime later, the discussion may turn to the issue of the teasing. But while M.N. can be apologetic, the right thing would be to take Annabel's lead about how much she wants to discuss the past. Giving her control over that would be a small token to make up for not trying to help put a stop to behavior she couldn't control in the past. 

Jeffrey L. Seglin, author of The Simple Art of Business Etiquette: How to Rise to the Top by Playing Nice, is a lecturer in public policy and director of the communications program at Harvard's Kennedy School. He is also the administrator of, a blog focused on ethical issues. 

Do you have ethical questions that you need answered? Send them to 

Follow him on Twitter: @jseglin 



Anonymous said...

It's nice for MN to have these good feelings, but I would say it's better to let sleeping dogs lie. We don't always have to feel that we need to "fix" things!

Charlie Seng

Anonymous said...

Absolutely not.
A long time ago is such and keep it there.
Unless she says something (which she will probably not) leave alone.
Start fresh or not at all but don't dig into old wounds.
Alan Owseichik
Greenfield, Ma