I got to spend some time in Canmore, AB (Canada) this past weekend. You know, this place:
It’s a really beautiful town, but I really didn’t have a hot clue where I was going most of the time. I’m a pretty nervous driver when I’m in a place that I don’t know very well, so I was being extra observant and extra careful. Most of the time, being extra careful is very effective, but sometimes it makes us anxious and we actually end up seeing less.
And that was the case on Saturday afternoon. I was going to make a left turn and, while trying to see everything, I didn’t see the car coming from my left.
It’s okay, I inched out the stoplight, travelled a foot or two and braked, avoiding an accident by about a hundred feet. I did, however, get one of these:
You know this face and the feeling you get when you see it. That mixture of shame, embarrassment, with a dash of anger. I mean, who does this guy think he is?
And it’s the last point that I want to address because it specifically relates to teaching: Why is he so angry? There are a few things that happen here:
First is the surprise. The other driver is just caught off guard and gets emotional. His first reaction is adrenaline – I scared him and he doesn’t like that.
Second, he doesn’t like that he’s surprised and now he’s reacting with the reptilian part of his brain. There’s a fight or flight mechanism that’s making him feel defensive. And that defence leads to anger.
Anger is the third one. He’s angry; or, at the very least, emotional. He might not be angry at me immediately, but he’s angry.
As we know about emotions (but particularly anger), we don’t always think clearly when we’re in the moment. As the old saying goes, when emotions are high, intelligence is low, and this is where the social/emotional construct gets hairy.
If it were to end here, that’d be fine. He’s surprised, he’s emotional, he’s angry – I can deal with that. The problem comes where he makes eye contact with you and puts his arm in the air signalling that you should know better. He doesn’t make it about him, he makes it about you. In fairness, I’m the one who didn’t see him, so it really is about me, really. However, the problem lies with the arm gesture. The problem lies with the action he takes against you.
He needed me to know that I was wrong, that “What are you doing, man? Don’t you know better?” look. He needs to prove to me that I was wrong and assert dominance that he knew better than I did. In short, he needs to teach me a lesson. It’s not about driving now, it’s about power.
I have a problem with that because he’s basing all of his actions on the flawed initial premise that my inching out of the stoplight and subsequent braking was done on purpose. The thought had never entered his mind that, perhaps, I simply didn’t see him and made a mistake.
This happens all the time, but particularly in traffic. When you see someone cut someone else off and the person behind loses their mind, could it be that maybe the person in front thought that they had more room than they actually did? That maybe the person in front wasn’t trying to be malicious at all and, instead, just made a mistake?
In today’s case, it’s not that I didn’t know better, it’s that I didn’t see him that far away. When some fifteen year old bumps an eighteen year old in the hallway and the older one screams “what’s your problem?!” it’s most likely that the younger one didn’t see him, thought they had more room, or simply wasn’t paying attention. No malicious intent involved, just an accident.
Any altercation is better solved with empathy, rather being solved with power. If you feel slighted or taken advantage of, is it real? Could it possibly be a lack of thinking? Or that the assailant maybe hadn’t thought about their action in the way that you’re thinking about it?
How many people do we know in our lives whose first reaction to all new situations is to get mad?
Something unexpected happens? Anger.
Change in the plans? Anger.
Someone didn’t do things the way that they would do things? Anger.
Someone does something that they wouldn’t do? Anger.
Instead, let’s try and put ourselves in the other person’s shoes for a second before we react. What are they bringing to the table? What are the other possible outcomes for their action other than to slight me?
(P.S. Odds are that no one is trying to slight you and it’s all in your head. You aren’t that important, it’s okay, neither am I, neither is anyone)
It’s hard, I know. It’s about tricking your reptilian brain out of engaging. Your cerebral cortex isn’t very good at reacting quickly, but it does a much better job of finding solutions. Really, it does.
And let’s collectively agree to stop trying to teach all of these strangers a lesson. Leave the lesson teaching to teachers and parents. We don’t always know why people do what they do, but it’s usually someone not thinking, not paying attention, or just making a mistake.
It’s okay, it’s only a big deal if you make it a big deal. Or, I guess, if this guy does.
Let’s do our best, everyone.