I was in a store pushing my cart behind someone else with his cart. We both came to a stop because a woman had her cart in the middle of the aisle, blocking traffic both ways. She was looking at the contents on the shelves and oblivious to our presence. The guy ahead of me stood there for awhile and waited. I do not know if he stood there patiently, content for her to take her time, or if he was becoming increasingly impatient. Based on his sighs which were increasingly getting louder, I think he was annoyed. But I found myself standing there thinking, this is easily fixed with a gentle “excuse me” to get her attention. I figured she would then move her cart to allow us (and others) to pass. Instead, he stood there becoming increasingly annoyed with a woman who had no idea she was being annoying. Just as I was about to say “excuse me” she noticed us and apologetically moved her cart out of the way.
I have had countless situations where I was quite aggravated by what I thought was stupidity or insensitivity on the part of a stranger. I was the one standing there annoyed and sighing loudly as if to say, “Move it!” or “Get in the back of the line!” or “No you can’t leave to get a loaf of bread while the cashier and I wait!” But one day I thought I would make a concerted effort to give others the benefit of the doubt. I would remind myself that I didn’t know what the person might be dealing with. What if the guy with 17 items in the “12 items or less” line had just learned that he had cancer, and was too preoccupied to count the items in his cart? Not that I think every person who has done something seemingly thoughtless is suffering, but it did give me pause to be kinder when I decided to say something.
And so began my new social experiment. When someone acted in a way that seemed unfair and it was appropriate for me to speak up, I would. For example when a person cut in line, I would politely say “excuse me, the end of the line is over there.” To my surprise, I would often receive a response like, “I’m so sorry! I didn’t know!” Where I had often presumed willful disrespect, it was more often a case of misunderstanding. I have periodically gotten a scowl in return, indicating that the person knew exactly what he or she was doing. Since what I said did not include condemnation, the situation was easily resolvable for those who meant no harm. For those who actually were jerks, they rarely got confrontational because my tone lacked anger or annoyance, and I had the people around me on my side. I also found that my outings became much more enjoyable now that I was no longer judge and jury for public behavior.
I started to see how applicable this learning could be to the rest of my life. In the past, if someone said something hurtful, I would think about it, process it, and sometimes let it fester. I would condemn the person for hurting me, but rarely would I let that person know. What if, when something felt hurtful I spoke up? Not with condemnation that the hurt was intentional but rather to give the person the benefit of the doubt and simply articulate how it felt. What if I didn’t worry about whether I should be hurt or if the person meant to hurt me? What if I assumed the situation would be easily resolvable rather than believing I would be wise to sit with and process my hurt? It’s almost ridiculous how hard we work to make things way more complicated than they need to be.
This kind of authenticity is much easier said than done, particularly for those of us who haven’t practiced it much. When we get hurt, we want to protect ourselves, thus the go-away-and-stew-about-it technique. Speaking up can be risky. But rather than seeing the articulating of our perspective or feelings as conflict, maybe instead we should say what we need to say and then listen in response. Not defensively or ready to argue, but to simply be present with the other person. Conflict will occasionally happen, but we don’t have to start a conversation with our fists up, ready for a fight.
Interesting how all of this began with a woman blocking the aisle.