In This Episode: One of the This is True mantras is ‘Think first, react later …if at all.’ But what does that really mean, and how can we learn something from an example of doing it ‘wrong’?
- No links for this one, but a comment: the reason I was watching traffic so closely when I was walking downtown is because a couple of years ago, I would see multiple news articles about pedestrians in crosswalks being run down in Denver — and then the driver took off. Sometimes I’d see 2-3 in a week! I finally was able to talk to a Denver cop and ask why. His answer: because the penalty for felony hit-and-run were lighter than for drunk driving resulting in death, so they just took their chances. Yikes!
I just got back from a road trip, and seeing someone in a sort-of road rage incident made me roll my eyes — and consider how it could have been different had that driver taken just a few seconds to think, rather than react.
Welcome to Uncommon Sense. I’m Randy Cassingham
Spending several days in downtown Denver brought some good food, good friends, and bad drivers. Not all of them, of course. In fact, most were fine drivers — I was watching — but it’s the bad ones that stand out, right? As I was waiting to cross a street, I saw the light for the traffic go yellow, and a driver decided to stop a little sharply. She might have made it into the intersection before it went red, but stopped instead.
But she wasn’t the bad driver: the guy behind her was. He not only thought the first car could have gotten through, he thought he could have blown through too! If he had, he definitely would have gone through a red light. But that isn’t where it ended. As he screeched to a halt pretty much right in front of me, I heard him yelling, “Oh come ON!” — he was mad at the first car for stopping; I could hear him clearly because his window was down. And then for good measure he flipped off the driver who stopped. And then the piece de resistance: a little more quietly, he said, “god damned women!” — and that told me a lot.
“You are the problem here,” I said to the guy, “not her.” I purposefully made eye contact and, once that was accomplished, I turned away as I got to the far side of the crosswalk. I couldn’t see him flip me off, but I did hear him curse me. I didn’t react at all, I just kept walking, and his light went green and he took off.
The other thing I noticed is that his car had several dents, apparently from hitting things. This wasn’t the sort of guy who learns quickly.
Long-time This is True fans will label this situation correctly: the guy didn’t think, he reacted. But what does that really mean? What lessons can we take away from this brief interaction that happens pretty much every hour, in pretty much every city, pretty much every day? Or to put it another way, what would a thinking person in his position have done instead?
Let’s analyze the situation a little bit, which does means making a few assumptions that are likely correct, even if I can’t prove it. I mean, he could be a full-time jerk who blows through stale yellows all the time, but let’s give him the benefit of the doubt, and assume he was simply late. And he was blaming the more-cautious woman in front of him for making him even later.
And that’s the problem right there: blaming someone who really was doing the right thing because he had done the wrong thing: he didn’t leave on time for whatever appointment he had. Well, it’s certainly not his fault! It’s the damned city! It’s the heavy traffic! It’s that dingy dame!
Nope, nope, and huh-uh. This one is all on him.
I’m sure you can think of someone like this: every bad turn, every problem at work, every difficulty with a spouse, is someone else’s fault — even though the common denominator every single time is them. It’s a refusal to take any responsibility. It’s not just someone else’s fault: It’s life’s fault! It’s the universe’s fault!
Nope: it’s his fault, and it’s going to be his fault when he blows through a red light and hits someone with a greet light. It’s going to be his fault when he gets fired from his job. It’s going to be his fault when he has a heart attack or a stroke from the stress he’s putting on himself.
But he won’t think so — in part because he just doesn’t think. He reacts. And this is just one example of what I mean when I say “Think first, react later, if at all.”
This sort of person acts like others are purposefully trying to thwart whatever they’re trying to do, yet in a lot of cases, the others don’t even know the angry person exists. Sure, sometimes they’re being inconsiderate too; I’m not saying everyone is the innocent victim of road-rangers and blamers. But when people do become aware someone is raging at them, that’s typically the first time they’ve ever noticed them — they have no idea whatever about what set them off. Yet the blamer is sure it’s personal, which gives you an idea of their typical ego and self-importance.
So back to our driver, who I’ll call Honkey, since my wife laughed when I referred to him with that name. It gets more insidious when you consider his follow-on: the “god damned women!” part. He’s not only blaming her for his own problem, he’s confirming his own bias: he’s counting this as evidence for his prejudices. According to that line of thinking, only men can be good drivers. Not women, and probably not minorities, and certainly not minority women!
But it’s not just blame, and it’s not just confirmation bias: it’s a complete lack of empathy: he didn’t consider the other driver’s situation at all — the one he blamed for his own problem. Like what? What if the woman saw a car coming from the side, and it wasn’t safe to go even if the light were green? Maybe she saw a traffic cop sitting there watching for light-runners. What if sometime in the past, she did pop through a yellow light — and got hit? Wouldn’t that make someone more cautious? Well yeah — if they’re smart!
But Honkey didn’t think about any of that. He just reacted and spewed his anger on everyone but the person who was really at fault: him. It’s childish, it’s narcissistic, it’s stupid — and it’s rampant in our society. And such people tend to be irate, even furious, when someone doesn’t give them the benefit of the doubt! Yet when disinterested outside observers see such a scene unfold, they have no trouble saying which driver was in the wrong.
As I said, it’s almost certain you can pretty much immediately think of someone in your life that’s like this. Now consider: if you were the manager of a business, would you want someone like that working for you? Or would you prefer someone who said, “Hey, this one’s on me: I thought we could trust XYZ Corp since we’ve had contracts with them in the past, and I assumed they could deliver on time — but I didn’t check if they had experience with our style of widget.”?
Sure, XYZ Corp deserves some blame too — they didn’t deliver as promised — but I’d much rather work with someone like that than an “It’s their fault!” guy like Honkey, in part because he’s not a team player: he’s a team blamer.
Wouldn’t you rather work with someone who admits their mistakes? Can you imagine having a spouse like Honkey? He probably blames others for his bad relationships, too. It’s probably always the fault of those “god damned women”! Again, what is the common denominator in each of those failed relationships?
Now, this really isn’t about a 20-second traffic incident, it’s about the mindset behind it. Yes, we all get mad sometimes and blame others, but if we think about it, if we’re mature, we pretty quickly cool off and say “You know, I didn’t handle that well. Let’s see how we can plan better to make sure we don’t make that mistake on the next contract. What do we need to change?”
Isn’t that more productive, more mature, more responsible? Well, obviously it is: that’s being a team player, and it’s literally more thoughtful, too. And people like others more when they’re thoughtful, responsible, and work toward making things better. We respect them more, too. Can’t you just hear Honkey whining about how no one respects him? It’s easy, because we’ve heard people like that again and again.
Because blame is a pretty common reaction in our society, and it’s easy to jump to that. That’s why it’s such a good idea to take just a few seconds to think rather than react, and really, it’s not too late to say “You know, after thinking about this, it definitely wasn’t your fault. It was mine. Can you work with me to figure out how to make the process better?” Yet it’s so unusual that just thinking about someone doing that is refreshing. What a great way to turn your life around, and work on not doing it in the first place, rather than apologizing later.
It’s the approach people with Uncommon Sense take, anyway!
Think about it.
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I’m Randy Cassingham … and I’ll talk at you later.
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