Benefit of the Doubt

note from Toni McGee Causey – please give a hearty Murderai welcome to guest blogger Allison Brennan today — Allison’s a NYT and USA Today bestselling author and phenomenal friend to Murderati.

by Guest Blogger Allison Brennan

Conference season is winding down for 2008. There’s a few left, like Bouchercon this fall, but for the most part all the biggies are done. It’s a time to reflect on what we’ve learned, what we loved, what didn’t work for us, and remember that in the end, conferences are primarily for networking, learning about craft and business (even us published authors still have a lot to learn), meeting with agents and editors, and even a bit of promotion. It doesn’t hurt to have new bookmarks printed or a few books to give away!

I wanted to take this time to reflect on a larger problem that was only highlighted at the RWA conference, but really is not just a conference issue. It’s a blog issue, a local meeting issue, an industry issue. In fact, it extends to all facets of life–family, friends, work, church, school. That is, giving people the benefit of the doubt.

In this era where celebrities are caught with their pants down, without make-up, looking too fat or too skinny or seen whispering intimately with another woman’s husband, we often make snap judgments about their lifestyle or what is going on. The cliché a picture says a thousand words” is true–but in the era of photoshop or carefully framed shots, we might not be seeing the whole picture and thus basing our judgment on misinformation.

This reality of the modern information era was really highlighted during my years working in the State Legislature. The obvious example–reporters misquoting someone–happens more than I had ever thought. I could sit in an interview and know exactly what was said, and dropping a couple words can make the subject either seem more brilliant than he really is, or a total idiot. In committee hearings, I could listen to hours of testimony and be moved beyond words, but when you read about it in the paper, you get the one idiot who said something stupid and that’s the “quote” and result of the hearing.

In the writing world, there are authors who never participate in conferences. Perhaps they’ve never been, or used to go but don’t find them valuable, or are so introverted they don’t want to be around 2,500 other writers. In RWA, we have career professionals outside of writing–lawyers, doctors, teachers, scientists, cops–the list goes on and on. We have career authors, new authors, midlist authors, unpublished authors. We have people at every level of their writing career. There are agents, editors, publicists, bloggers, reporters, family, the list goes on. There are women with young kids, grown kids, no kids. Grandmothers and daughters. Black, white, Asian, and every other race. Christian, Jewish and Atheists. Married, divorced, single. Republicans, Democrats and Independents. Americans, British, Australians, Canadians, and more. We are diverse in ways few organizations are. We’re united by one thing: writing romance.

But because we are so diverse, and we don’t know each other well–outside of a few close friends or an annual sitdown at the conference bar–we can build up an image and then that image is distorted, we balk.

A favorite author who you picked up at the airport at your last RWA meeting only three months ago doesn’t remember your name; worse, ignores you completely when she sees you.

A friend doesn’t wave back when you see them across the lobby.

Your chapter member–who you see every month–doesn’t remember you’re in the same local chapter.

Your agent ignores you and goes off with who you believe is her favorite client.

Your editor takes you to lunch, but Jane Smith to dinner. Worse, your editor doesn’t remember you by sight.

Our reaction is to be sad, angry, flustered, slighted. We were wronged, but maybe we can’t articulate why we feel wronged. Or we articulate it, giving voice to our frustration, seeking justification that we were slighted in some manner. Often, the slight gets spun out of control as the rumor mill starts churn.

The rumor weed–for those who’ve watched Veggie Tales can attest!–can grow under the poisoned water of perceived slights, wrongs, or repeated rumors. It grows and can tear apart a person, a group, an organization.

But what really is happening is that we aren’t giving someone the benefit of the doubt.

Yes, an author you picked up from JFK and drove two hours to your chapter conference should absolutely remember your name.

But what if she had just gotten off the phone with her daughter who had a miscarriage the night before?

Yes, a writing buddy should acknowledge your greeting–it’s only polite.

But what if she had just discovered her suitcase–with not only her Rita dress but her laptop with the book due Monday–had been lost by the airlines?

Your editor should know you by sight–she has your author photo, doesn’t she?

But what if she didn’t recognize you with the new blonde ‘do and glasses? Or you’ve never met her, but you’ve talked on the phone for three years and she knows you are Jane Smith . . . but maybe she left her glasses in the hotel room and your badge is blurry?

Every day, people have small and large problems that they have to deal with and sometimes, being “on” constantly at a conference is hard, especially when the problems seem overwhelming. What if your husband dropped your daughter off at one place, and there’s a small family emergency and you try to reach your daughter, but she’s not there, she’s not answering her cell phone, and none of her friends know where she is? Would you be making small talk with a friend?

At this last conference, I know people who had to deal with some pretty tough stuff while trying to fulfilling their obligations at the conference.

. . . A bestselling author whose mother had a heart attack the night before, but she wasn’t told until she arrived at the conference.

. . . An editor whose long-time, elderly cat went missing.

. . . An author who learned via email that a close friend had cancer.

. . . A writer who was woken up late nearly every night of the conference by her husband because his sleep was interrupted taking care of their child and he wanted her help.

These aren’t things that someone is going to just offer up. We’re mostly women so we tend to want to know everything and we want to help fix it. It’s hardwired into us, we think that talking about the problems and commiserating is a solution. And I believe it is–just not with everyone in the world.

People get jet-lagged and aren’t at their best and brightest. People can be preoccupied, with good news or bad news or maybe even no news. People are nervous meeting their agent or editor for the first time. When I first went to the Reno conference, six months before my first book came out, with my JD Robb book in hand, waiting in line . . . I put the book in front of Nora to sign and inserted my foot in my mouth. Something about her inspiring me to keep my ass in the chair. Oh, yes, I said the “A” word. I’d wanted to say something more about her setting a good example, yada yada, but instead I blurted out the first thing I thought of. (Fortunately, I figured, Nora Roberts meets so many people at every conference she couldn’t possibly have remembered my name even if she did read it on my badge.)

This goes beyond personal connections and into email, but this post is already getting too long! I respond to all my email, usually within a week, but sometimes I get backlogged. Or, when I was moving, I was without Internet access for a couple days, moving, and on deadline . . . and was hugely backlogged. Sometimes cyberspace can eat a message and the intended recipient didn’t receive it. No one should assume that just because someone didn’t respond in a day, week, or month that they even received the message. And sarcasm? Sarcasm often falls flat in written form, especially in email. But I could do a whole blog about misunderstanding the intent of information emails.

I’m not saying anything new or noteworthy. But a few mutterings I heard at conference about this author or that editor or such-and-such a writer upset me. How do we know that the person we’re criticizing didn’t just have bad news? How do we know the person actually saw us? Or maybe she was late to her editor meeting–and she’d never met her editor before?

Things happen, and we’re not always at 100% all the time. We all know this, but sometimes we think that at conference everyone should be completely with it whenever they are out of their hotel room.

This is why I always try to give people the benefit of the doubt. I rarely know the whole story. Maybe the author really is a complete bitch, but most of the time, I really do believe something is going on and my perception of what is or isn’t happening is skewed.

I’m sure there are plenty of stories out there where you made an assumption that was wrong, or where someone assumed the worst about you based on part of the picture. Maybe if you all share your stories, everyone, including me, will take perceived slights in stride next time around.


Allison’s latest:


Tempting Evil, is out right now and her next, Playing Dead:


will be out September 30th. Check out her website for her own great blog and additional details.

21 thoughts on “Benefit of the Doubt

  1. Zoë Sharp

    Alison – welcome back to Murderati and bravo!

    This struck so many chords because I’m definitely guilty of the ‘if she ignores me it must be because she hates me’ school of snap judgements, but I’m always delighted to have them proved wrong.

    It’s only when it comes to intentional rudeness or downright bad manners – and there’s been the odd one – that I have a very long memory … ;-]

  2. Catherine

    My Mum is a great one for overlooking imagined slights. She would ask us to think hard if the person we were offended by, really meant offence .To give them the benefit of the doubt as you’ve mentioned here Allison.

    Even on the rare occasion when offence is intended, I find it easier to be ultra polite back…my smile is that little bit brighter, it thwarts the nastiness by throwing them off their stride.

  3. Pam Claughton


    Really great post. I love to see this in the RWR actually, as it is something that will resonate with many. It’s so true, you never know what else is going on in people’s lives and how it can affect their behavior (in ways that they are likely unaware). Reminds too of that little saying as to why you should ‘assume’ anything. 🙂

  4. Pam Claughton

    Ugh…should have looked at that more closely before I hit post. Sorry for the typos. I meant to say it reminds me of that saying on why you should NEVER ‘assume’ anything. 🙂

  5. Alexandra Sokoloff

    Allison, always so great to have you here, and LORD, how right you are. I never get offended at these little gaffes because I know so well how spacy and disconnected I get after just a few hours at conferences. While I love them, the experience is so big and overwhelming and RANDOM that it’s impossible to keep everyone straight, or be totally on and on top of things even half the time.

    I live in fear of offending people myself because I am such a space cadet, always thinking in a million different directions at once, that sometimes I wouldn’t recognize my own sister. But I never hold that kind of spaciness or distraction against anyone else.

    Your post is a really vital reminder that it’s never as much about us as we think it is.

  6. Lori G. Armstrong

    AWESOME post, A.

    It’s easy to *think* you’re getting slighted, but far worse when you actually *do* – I don’t know if some people think others are deaf at conferences, or what, but some of us have incredibly good hearing. So the slight you meant only your tablemate to hear can carry those ten feet to the person standing at the edge of the bar…

    I suffer from the “blonde in the bar” phenomenon. Nothing I can do about it but patiently reintroduce myself to those I’ve met sometimes numerous times before but don’t remember me. I try not to take it personally, but it is hard when it’s the 4th time you’ve been introduced.

    I understand the need for privacy, but there is a moment when authors need to be forthcoming. Case in point: Annie Proulx was a featured speaker at South Dakota Festival of the Book a few years back. She got up and read a snippet of her work, sat down, didn’t engage in any conversation with the other authors, didn’t speak to anyone and left immediately after the event. A LOT of folks were upset and figured as the big literary author she thought she was too good to contribute anything besides her presence. Come to find out, she’d had a huge dental issue, couldn’t talk and was in excruciating pain the entire time. She’d’ve been better off coming clean, rather than coming off aloof.

  7. Jake Nantz

    Yep. Assumption is the mother of all screw-ups. I run into this a lot at school. You have to learn this kind of patience because High School students, especially Seniors, are very hit-or-miss. They may be sullen or moody, but it may be that they just found out they didn’t get into the school of choice (or worse, their backup). It may be their parents are fighting, or have recently divorced. Their boyfriend/girlfriend of an eternity (6months or more) may have broken up with or cheated on them. There are a hundred reasons, so it’s delicate at times.

    That said, I’m a horrible one for remembering names. So I am of course terrified that, should I ever get to the bigtime and start to be able to afford the con circuit, I’ll never remember anyone’s name and be blackballed at all the good bar-conversations. I can’t help it, it’s a memory thing (or lack thereof), but I know it’ll bite me in the ass just the same. Oh well.

    Ms. Brennan, welcome and thank you so much for illuminating this issue for us!

  8. toni mcgee causey

    I have one of those horrible memories that won’t recognize someone out of context. I did it again last night to an aunt and uncle at a restaurant we frequent, but where I’ve never seen them. Just walked right past, inches from them, didn’t even know who they were.

    I think I told the story here of not recognizing my husband (of 8 yeas at the time) when I saw him while in the grocery store and he had seen my car, stopped to tell me something… and I just flat didn’t realize who he was ’til I’d walked past him and he called my name. Took a couple of heartbeats for my brain to snap in gear–I was probably off writing or solving some problem and in autotron zone–but it completely floored him.

    I know I’m more likely to do this at a conference, where there are so many people to see. It all becomes a visual mess, all chaos of lights and darks in my head after a while, and I wish I had the true extrovert’s ability of being revived by a crowd’s energy. My conference fear is that I’m going to walk right past someone I know and just look like a complete bitch and not say hello.

  9. j.t. ellison

    Allison, great to have you here today!

    I find the reversion back to high school at conferences amusing, but it can get out of control very quickly if not checked. The good thing is, so long as you’re not falling down drunk in the bar, most people forget whatever transgressions you’ve made. People are wrapped up in their own lives, so it’s not worth beating yourself up.

    That said, I never assume anyone outside of my group of buddies remembers me. I just approach, stick out my hand and introduce myself, remind them where we met. I’ve been nicely surprised when people I would never expect to remember me do. There’s nothing worse than casting about, trying to find a name in the recesses of the mental cave. Introduce yourself, and remind of your spouse/date’s name. I’m hell on spouse names.

    But this is an important post — I had the same experience — a woman was sitting next to me at a signing just giving off waves of LEAVE ME ALONE. Turns out her daughter had received a horrible diagnosis five minutes before the signing. So it’s good for all of us to give the benefit of the doubt.

  10. Terri Molina

    Great Post Allison!

    I’m pretty much a self-deprecating, insecure, pessimistic person, so I don’t ever assume anyone is going to remember me on sight…which is why I’ll always introduce myself first and mention where the person knows me (from other conferences or online or if we’ve met once or twice). I’m always very shocked (and honored) when someone says “of course I recognize you). Also, living a life full of setbacks I know how distracting life can get and how it can turn you into a zombie of sorts, so I always try to give people the benefit of the doubt everytime. And, yeah, I’ve had the occasional forgetfulness when it comes to meeting people again…but usually it’s with a name. I almost never forget a face.


  11. Allison Brennan

    Thanks Toni for inviting me here today!

    Hi Zoe–I think we all know when someone is being intentionally rude. It’s hard to miss. I still try to give them the benefit, but they move over into a mental “watch your step” slot. And this segues perfectly to Catherine’s comment . . . I do exactly the same thing. Smile brightly, play the dumb blonde (sorry Alex and Lori! I couldn’t resist!) and hope that they have a good angel whispering in their ear that they’re being a total asshole and he nags them with guilt for the rest of the conference.

    Fancy meeting you here Pam! LOL. Maybe I’ll pitch it to the RWR next year.

    What Alex? You mean it’s NOT all about me? Damn. 😉 I definitely don’t hold spaciness against anyone. When I worked in the Capitol, when the newly elected legislators came in some of the staff would sit down with their photographs to make sure that they knew all the new members on sight. They didn’t want to offend one of them. Kiss ups. 🙂 Seriously, there’s only so much time in the day, and I don’t need added stress by thinking my agent likes so-and-so more than me because she spent 47 minutes at their meeting, and only 43 minutes at mine.

    Lori! Hello hello! I could write an entire article about how to keep your mouth shut in public. Again, another remnant of my days in the legislature when you never know who’s eating behind you at a restaurant. Could be staff, another legislator, a lobbyist, or the LA Times political reporter . . . and in the writer’s world, you often don’t know what people look like because their author photo is 20 years old or they changed their hair color. It’s not like we have framed pictures of bestselling authors on the bedroom wall. Well, except for Lee Child of course . . . 😉

  12. Louise Ure

    Hi Allison, thanks for the post.

    In her comment, Toni hinted at yet another reason to give pause before blame, and it’s the one that resonates most clearly for me.

    If I’ve met you in Boise, I’m going to have difficulty placing you when I see you again in Baltimore. Know what I mean? That’s even true for the folks I see every month at our MWA meetings in San Francisco. If my memories of you are in the Maltese Falcon Room at John’s Grill, then it will take me a little bit longer to recognize you in Madison.

  13. Pari Noskin Taichert

    Allison,Wonderful, wonderful post.

    I’m waay behind in my emails — months and months — and it has to do with the fact that I want to send personal responses rather than canned ones. People don’t know that, but I do.

    As for a slight that I really notice: one of my daughters has a visual impairment that can’t be corrected and that isn’t noticeable — you’d never know to look at her.

    People constantly say “Hi” to her while walking past and it takes her time to register who is speaking. Too often, the person is already gone and has assumed she was being rude or ignoring the greeter. It’s incredibly frustrating and there’s little we can do about it in the bigger world.

    That’s just one example.

    At LCC in Denver, I was sicker than I realized and don’t remember half the conversations I had. I suspect many people think I was stuck-up or rude when it was more of a matter of being totally zonked out. Nothing I can do about that now . . . alas.

  14. Allison Brennan

    Hey Jake! As the mother of a high school student, I more than understand. Moodiness comes with the territory. You couldn’t pay me enough to be a teenager again. What did I do in a previous life to have a teenager of my own? It’s a cosmic joke. I wish I could skip from age 12 to 18. I might have to start killing teens in my books just to keep my sanity.

    You were at TF, JD? Just kidding! 🙂 Thanks for letting me visiting today.

    I met Lori in person for the first time at RT in 2006. Daytona Beach. She was the highlight of my conference. That, and the fact that I had a room that opened to the beach five floors up and something about the sound of the ocean and the salt air was good for my muse. I wrote 67 pages at that conference. Deleted most of it in revisions, but heck, it was a good start.

    Toni, I do the same thing. This happens to me all the time with parents from my kids school, people from church, the barista at Starbucks (why does she remember me???) and of course conferences. It’s actually kind of bad when I go to TF and don’t recognize someone because I associate them with RWA.

    JT, I’m one of those people who needs to see a name in print in order to remember it. If you’re wearing a name badge, I’m more likely to remember your name than if you just tell me. So no, I’m not staring at anyone’s boobs or broad chest when I glance down . . . it’s your name tag! But hey, if it’s a nice chest I might need to look twice. Just to remember the name, you know . . .

    Hi Terry! You’re fortunately a memorable person. If I forget you, you know I’m having a really, really, really Bobbie Faye kind of bad day.

  15. Fiona

    Hello Allison.

    Nice to see you hanging with the ‘rati like you did in SF. You DO remember me, don’t you? We sat at the same table at one of the luncheons, and said hi the next day in the lobby……..we are best buds now, aren’t we? 😉 (sorry, I couldn’t resist)

    Great post. I would love to see an article like this in the RWR next spring. I’m sure I’ll need the reminder again before the con in DC.

    BTW, I can assure anyone who has not met you that you are a class act and a pleasure to meet in person. Oh, and your books rock, too.

  16. Pari Noskin Taichert

    Hah!JT, your comment about nametags reminded me of the fact that I don’t wear my glasses all the time (maybe I should at this point — except I don’t need them close up) and when I look at nametags (and squint), women always think I’m staring at their breasts.

    Just lovely. Makes me quite popular and absolutely the life of any con.

  17. ArkansasCyndi

    Great post. You make some wonderful points. I have a horrible memory when it comes to names. And those ID tags? Why couldn’t the conferences put the first name IN HUGE CAPITAL letters so I can read them! If you ever meet me and I’m staring at your chest, I’m trying frantically to read the name on the conference ID tag!

  18. tess

    I cringe to think of all the dumb or unthinking things I’ve said at conferences through the years, never out of malice but simply out of ignorance or fatigue. I never remember anyone’s name. I never remember where I last saw someone. I have no ability at all to recognize faces. So I really appreciate this blogpost, and I do hope people will grant all foot-in-mouthers the benefit of the doubt.

  19. Allison Brennan

    Hi Fiona! Was it the luncheon that I walked out of almost immediately because of the crisis at home? Where I deserted Rob, Toni and CJ for my cell phone in the lobby? I certainly was not at my best at that moment, so I appreciate you giving me the benefit of the doubt. 🙂 (And I love your name. I probably said that to you as well, LOL.) I’m so glad you enjoy my books; thank you!!!

    Pari, all of us at RWA stare at each other’s boobs. Some of the writers I know have very nice cleavage . . . they know who they are. They all seem to write for Pocket . . .

    Cyndi, you’re absolutely right–I love conferences that have the first name bigger than the last.

    Hi Tess! You’re one of the authors I put my own foot in my mouth when we met at Thrillerfest 2006, and I’m so glad that you very likely forgot me and my big mouth. I can relax.


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