We Really Have No Idea What Everybody Else Is Up Against

November 13, 2013 — 15 Comments


You don’t realize there are rules about how people behave in public spaces until one of them is being broken. Sociologists call these social norms. I know this despite the fact that I bitterly failed my first Intro to Sociology exam as a freshman in college.

I was having lunch at the Maple Grove Byerly’s last week by myself, because I apparently enjoy paying $9 for a salad. Between bites of arugula and mushrooms, I noticed that an annoying radio station was blaring overhead. An angry woman kept raining down rant after rant, and I thought this was odd for Byerly’s. Michael Bolton set to musak? Not odd for Byerly’s. Angry, petulant female shock jocks reflected perhaps an expanding target market for this gritty grocery chain.

Then I noticed it wasn’t a radio station. It was an actual woman, sitting in this actual dining room.

She was across the room, and one of her shopping bags was sitting in front of her face, so I couldn’t see her. She was on her phone, and she was livid. So I did what everyone else was doing: I pretended to keep reading my book while simultaneously trying to hear every word she said.

Though there wasn’t space for the person on the other end of the line to speak, she kept saying, “I swear, you better let me talk, or I will hang up on you right now.” She must have said this a dozen times. There was mention of lawyers, and it was all just really, really loud.

The rest of us in the dining kept awkwardly looking at each other, as if to say, “Doesn’t she know where she is? Doesn’t she know this is our place, too? Doesn’t she know that she’s being completely inappropriate? Doesn’t she know she should leave?”

It went on and on, and I finished my salad and decided to go get a flu shot. You can do this in Byerly’s now. Soon we’ll be able to book a room for the night, as God intended for us to do in grocery stores. When I was filling out paperwork and waiting, I kept thinking about this woman. And then I thought about my reaction to her. I noticed something:

When people act inappropriately, my first move is to judge them. What’s wrong with them? Don’t they know they can’t do that here? I wish they would leave! They’re ruining my lunch!

I almost never realize how incredibly lame I am being when I think those things.

Steven Covey writes about a father with young kids on a subway car. The kids are wild, racing around, being loud and inappropriate. They’re clearly bothering the rest of the people who are trapped in the subway car, while the father just stares off into space. Finally, an exasperated person next to him says, “Sir! Get ahold of your children, please!”

This breaks him out of his trance, and he says, “Oh, I’m terribly sorry. It’s just that we’re just coming home from the funeral of their mother, and I just have no idea what I’m going to do without her.”

We really have no idea what everybody else is up against.

After I got my flu shot, I started walking back towards the dining room to see if the angry woman was still there. I had resolved to try to talk to her if she was done with her phone call. This scared me to death because it was certain to be a conversation that was quicksand, sticky and messy and never over. I was relieved when she was not there, so I went to the bathroom and drove back to work.

We can’t help everybody. We can’t jump into people’s messes and expect to fix them. But I wonder if a warm smile, a touch on the arm, and maybe the gift of a vanilla latté might have gone a long way for this obviously hurting woman.

Let’s notice when our first move is judgment, and let’s see if we have it in us to do something different, even if it’s small.

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15 responses to We Really Have No Idea What Everybody Else Is Up Against

  1. thank you! there was a day many years ago, we had a very sick daughter, i went to the grocery store, bought a bunch and was at the check out, when a woman behind me said, “you realize this is 10 and under items”, i burst into tears, apologized to the woman, as i didn’t even notice the sign. that day made me realize more than ever you never know what people are going through in their lives, whether the grocery store, driving, or whatever, so this was a very timely reminder, especially with holidays around the corner.

  2. Great advice but this can sometimes backfire. Perhaps the person that we think is struggling is actually very strong and not struggling at all. It’s happened to me where I felt pity for someone who actually didn’t need it, and I had misjudged that person’s situation entirely. Nonetheless, this shoudnt discourage us from doing the right thing and trying to sympathize with others.

  3. Thanks for the reminder. We’ll said.

  4. Thanks for sharing! I’ve always loved that story from Steven Covey too. I often need to remember not to judge others (as you were saying), and that when they judge me, they often do not know what I’m up against either. Both the judger and the judged are fighting untold battles.
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  5. Lisa Wiens Heinsohn November 13, 2013 at 9:44 am

    I love this: “let’s notice when the first move in us is judgment, and let’s see if we have it in us to do something different, even if it’s small.” I work with homeless young adults in Minneapolis and many of their actions are very difficult to understand–especially when they are “making things worse for themselves.” My teacher taught me to do this: when you see someone doing something totally outrageous, offensive, or that bothers you to your core, try to imagine: what might they have experienced in their lives that makes this action look like their best choice under the circumstances?

    Just that little move, that little effort to imagine, can make it easier for me–some days–to deal with what I see. I hope others will do this for me when I act like a jerk, too.

  6. Being rather timid in public myself, I’m very careful not to draw attention at all if I can help it. In large part this is because I’m very concerned about what people will think. When I have to, though, as when I have to speak in public, or sing, or heavens, just walk through the grocery store with all my children, and somebody does stop and say something kind to me, it makes a world of difference in the aforementioned timidness. What? People can think positive things about each other as well? Maybe I’m not hopelessly awkward at everything I do?

    So I think that those of us who are brave, like you said, and can bring themselves to open their mouths and respond to something they’ve noticed with a compliment, or understanding, or compassion, can go far toward erasing the silent judgement we all think we feel from each other. Reminds me of that old saw, “It’s better to be silent and be thought a fool than open your mouth and erase all doubt.” Except that, if you’re silent, nobody knows whether you’re feeling judgemental or compassionate, until you open your mouth and erase doubt. Thanks for the reminder to open my mouth and let compassion out.

  7. I will be brief here because I don’t want to be overly self-focused.

    Yesterday, I got involved in a post-blog comment debate (again) about feminism. I don’t find a problem with women having equal rights, so I was confused when I got flak. At one point, I was accused of being clueless about women’s rights because I’m a man with “absolute power”.

    As I’ve disclosed here before, I have a mental illness and other related complications in my life which are very disempowering. It was unknown to that commenter, she had no idea, about that aspect of me. But, in the context of the feminism debate, something was attributed to me because of my gender.

    You’re right; we have no idea what everybody else is up against. Thanks for your post.

  8. Great post! I worked for a number of years in the restaurant business and used the Stephen Covey story both as my own “attitude adjustment” and to help the young people I was mentoring to consider a different possibility when dealing with difficult customers. Thanks for your consistently inspirational writing!

  9. Steve, what I like most about your blog and your style of preaching / teaching at church of the open door is your authenticity. Thank you for being real with us it is a breath of fresh air.

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    […] We Really Have No Idea What Other People Are Up Against […]

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