My journey into work consists of a very short walk to the station, a 25 minute train journey into central London and a 25 minute walk to the office (my only self-imposed exercise).
On the train this morning I witnessed a very minor example of commuter rage – nothing really worth even mentioning if it wasn’t for the fact it set me off thinking. The train as usual was crowded. A man was sitting in an aisle seat and a woman with a fairly large handbag was standing next to him. She wasn’t being very self-aware about her bag and it was shoved up pretty hard against the guy’s arm which must have been annoying to say the least. He politely asked if she could move her bag and she decided she wasn’t happy about that and loudly replied ‘how dare you speak to me like that’ and ‘you’re the one sitting down, I’m standing up’ (interesting, factual, yet entirely irrelevant statement). He tried to calm it down by pointing out that he had in fact politely asked if she could move her bag. She repeated again that she ‘would prefer it’ if he didn’t speak to her like that (like what? politely? ok madam if you would prefer me to be rude then how about: get your fucking bag out of my face you ugly fat bitch…). At repeating her ridiculous claim that he was in some way being rude, another woman piped up and said to her ‘calm down, he has made a perfectly fair point’. The woman then shut up and that was the end of it. I couldn’t help looking at the stroppy woman with distaste for the rest of the journey wondering if she was standing there feeling utterly beaten and humiliated as she should be, or even perhaps berating herself for reacting so appallingly to a polite request. I decided she had a nasty face so very probably she had none of those self-doubts in her head and that she was just a very unpleasant woman.
It then occurred to me that I had taken an instant and complete dislike to this woman, based solely on what I had just witnessed. But hang on a minute, that’s hardly fair is it? I’ve tried and convicted this woman on the strength of one incident / exchange on a train. I’ve basically marked her down as a despicable, vile human being. Her whole life judged within seconds without even a moments consideration that there may be mitigating circumstances. This thought disturbed me, so as I got off the train and began my walk, I began to think. For all I know this could have been a lovers tiff – perhaps they had a huge row on the way to the station that morning, so to everyone on the train they appeared like strangers, but actually this was just a continuation of something that had happened earlier. Her behaviour might have been totally out of character – she might have received some terrible piece of news that morning or she might have been ill. The guy might have rudely pushed her out of the way to get the seat from her in the first place. Basically the ‘perhaps’ list could go on forever, yet I still made my snap decision about her character on the strength of the one moment that I witnessed.
So what’s that then? Human nature? Shoot first, ask questions later? Something tells me that everyone else on the train who witnessed this incident, will have thought exactly the same thing as me and instantly branded her a nasty bitch, with no need for further information or background, just an instant conviction without trial. But surely this should be a concern? Even if all our snap conclusions about this woman were actually correct (that she is indeed just be a nasty, stuck up bitch with absolutely no consideration for anyone or anything other than herself), it does not justify the utter lack of thought behind our collective condemnation of her. We seem to be programmed to instantly take sides, and once a side is taken, the facts become somewhat irrelevant.
Perhaps in this situation, the correct way of thinking would be to of course recognise that the woman had reacted badly or irrationally, and rather than instantly condemn her reaction, question whether she is ok. Why has she reacted like this? Is she ill? Is she desperately unhappy / in a really bad place. Rather than instantly taking sides and judging her, frowning at her, shaking heads at her, generally looking down noses at her, how about approaching the situation from another angle: perhaps by offering her a seat? That would certainly surprise everyone – an act of kindness rather than a returned act of aggression. Our instinct when confronted with aggression is to either actively or passively return that aggression. By ‘passively returned aggression’, I am referring for example, to my own reaction, which was to judge her behaviour and as a result feel contempt towards her.
As I walked away from the train station and continued to think about this, two things occurred to me:
1) I would have been utterly mortified if I had been that woman – realising that everyone on that train must think I was a total arsehole because maybe I opened my big, grumpy mouth – perhaps only because I’d got out of bed the wrong side that morning… too late though, the deed was done – that one moment of weakness and I had been branded. Everybody on that train will be looking at me and despising me…
2) My automatic response to almost everything is a passively aggressive response. I judge, I pass sentence, I condemn people & things all the damn time.
Point 1, I think is just an echo of my insecurities. Point 2, however opens up an interesting and very troubling can of worms. As I’m getting older, my tolerance for other people’s shortcomings, is diminishing rapidly. To the point that without me even being aware of it, my thoughts / feelings / frustrations apparently don’t always remain safely hidden in my private thoughts… sometimes my intolerance displays itself without me even realising. At work, for example, it has recently come to my attention that my intolerance of our receptionist’s lack of attention to detail, and sloppiness has resulted in my having upset her. I had no idea, but obviously I am not disguising my irritation with her as well as I thought. Okay – if she’s not doing what is required of her efficiently or correctly, then this needs addressing, but I am very clearly not currently addressing it in a positive or appropriate way…. I shouldn’t, and don’t want to, upset anyone. It would seem then, that my frustrations sometimes control my behaviour. My ‘frustrations’ are very closely tied to my ‘temper’ – that thing about myself that I loathe the most.
I began to realise as I continued to walk (about halfway to work by now), that this is actually a horribly familiar story throughout my whole life. My frustrations (reasonable or not) seem to consume me and even control me without me ever realising, and that while I think I am presenting myself to the world in one particular way or as one type of person, everyone is actually seeing me as somebody completely different and I don’t like what they see because they’re wrong… they have totally misunderstood me… even sometimes my closest friends. But they can’t all be wrong… can they? If it keeps happening then I have to conclude that how I want to be perceived by others, is not actually how I am perceived at all.
Aggression born from frustration.
Frustration from feeling misunderstood.
Feeling misunderstood the result of an unrealistic view of oneself.