“Other people’s behaviour doesn’t make us angry? Of course, it does. It happens almost every day!” It’s clear that it feels that way. We are accustomed to thinking that it is people’s behaviour that makes us angry, and thus, that it is bad behaviour.
However, the matter is not quite that straightforward. Various resources on communication, difficult situations, and self-awareness suggest that in reality, our reaction is not universal or inevitable. While it may be easy to contemplate this idea on a theoretical level, it is more challenging to fully internalise it in practice.
Until it suddenly really hit home for me.
Once there was a house with a neighbour
I live with my spouse in the countryside, and we have a relatively large amount of space around us. We also have precisely one neighbour. We had been living in our home for quite some time when we noticed that our neighbour had a habit of occasionally parking their car on our property.
This made me boil with rage. I was extremely upset and frustrated. I didn’t understand this behaviour at all. I was ready to order a huge block of concrete online and place it right in that corner of our property. I grumbled and complained and fretted about it to my spouse, who…
…was not angry about it at all. And I don’t know which upset me more: the neighbour’s behaviour or the fact that it didn’t bother my spouse in the slightest.
The same situation, a different interpretation, a different reaction
After I fumed over the situation for some time, one day, enlightenment struck. My spouse and I were in precisely the same situation. Same house, same property, same neighbour. Although the situation was nearly identical for both of us, our reactions were entirely different.
That’s when I finally realized that my reaction is not universal, and it is not the only possible reaction in this situation. Thus, my reaction cannot be a direct consequence of the situation, because if it was a direct consequence of the situation, my spouse should have the same reaction.
That’s when I finally understood that my reaction follows from the interpretation I give to this situation. Our interpretations were different.
I interpreted the neighbour’s behaviour as a boundary violation. I assumed that the other party’s attitude was disrespectful, indifferent, even intrusive. Therefore, I experienced the situation as utterly unfair and infuriating. My spouse’s interpretations were much more moderate, which is why he remained calm.
Interpretation is always a guess and stems from our background
Interpretations are made in a split second and are derived from our background: our upbringing, culture, experiences, perspectives, worldview, and the influence of people around us. We are often blind to these factors, and therefore, we assume that our interpretation is the absolute truth of the situation.
However, an interpretation is always just a guess. We don’t know what the other person really meant or what is intentional and what is unintentional in their behaviour. Even the intensity of our reactions related to different interpretations is both personal and culture-dependent.
Therefore, it’s good for us to pause and consider our reactions:
- What in the other person’s behaviour triggers this reaction?
- What interpretation am I giving to it?
- What do I assume is happening here?
- Why do I, specifically, react this way?
Seek help from a neutral third party
If you notice yourself reacting very strongly, talk to someone else about it. Preferably, someone who won’t instinctively share your reaction but can help you process it. Someone who can offer alternative interpretations. Someone who can suggest what else this situation might mean.
Often, understanding and accepting the subjectivity of our own reaction alone can help us approach the situation more neutrally. Even if, in the end, we may be “right” with our interpretation, we can still engage in a more constructive conversation when we don’t approach the other person with a pitchfork and a block of concrete. Besides, it might turn out that it wasn’t the neighbour’s car after all.
TL;DR Other people’s behaviour doesn’t make us angry, but rather our interpretation of it
- Even if the situation is identical for everyone, people’s reactions to it can be entirely different.
- Our reaction is not universal, and it is not the only possible reaction in that situation.
- Our reactions follow from the interpretations we give to the situation.
- Interpretations are derived from our history: our upbringing, culture, experiences, perspectives, worldview, and the influence of people around us.
- We are often blind to these factors.
- If you notice that you are reacting strongly to something, examine your own reactions or talk about them to a third party.
- Often simply understanding and accepting the subjectivity of our own reaction helps us approach the situation more neutrally and constructively.