DEFINITION: Perceiving a first-strike attack against you that didn’t actually happen. Mistaking a benign gesture for a ‘tat,’ requiring a tit-for-tat retaliation. Mistats are the world’s greatest source of wasteful conflict.

The moment of mistat is the instantaneous pivot point that can send an otherwise calm exchange up a viscous cycle of escalating conflict. Escalating, because striking back against a first-strike attack that wasn’t there, can’t help but be perceived as itself, a first-strike. As a result, both sides in the ensuing conflict think the other started it and neither side remembers having done so.

Understanding the nature of mistats is the best way to reduce them. They come with the territory of being here. While we can wish for a world in which all seeming slights are just perceptual errors, we don’t live in that world. In ours, deciding how to respond to seeming slights is about the most common and important kind of tough judgment call we’re likely to encounter.

Mind Readers Dictionary: The Podfast : Play in Popup

Mind Readers Dictionary : Play in Popup


Tough judgment calls are by definition, decisions in which opposite situations require opposite responses, and you can’t tell which situation you are in. Deciding whether you’re under attack certainly qualifies. The last thing in the world you want to do is mistat, except for the other last thing in the world you want to do which is take an assault lying down.

The rule I’ve made for myself is that when I think I’ve been slighted, my next utterance should be a question—not a snide rhetorical question, but a question to clarify, borne of what meager curiosity I can muster in my hair-trigger desire to respond—a question that will help me find out if it’s real or ‘just me.’

I don’t follow this rule all of the time, but fortunately my question-rule works pretty well even after the mistat moment passes. A question or two to clarify a potential misunderstanding can deescalate fights that are already underway. A save in time stitches nine.

Still, since most of us are able to deny a slight we really meant, asking questions isn’t a magic cure for mistats.

There are no magic cure for mistats, which means we should avoid attacking ourselves for guessing wrong. The better we get at accepting that mistats come with the territory, the milder the chagrin for guessing wrong, and the more readily we can apologize and correct for our errors of judgment.

A tit for a tat is deemed fair,
but sometimes the tat isn’t clear.
A lot of world warring
boils down to ignoring
the chance that the tat wasn’t there.