Once upon a time I treated strangers with the utmost respect, politely waiting my turn in a queue or conversation. Recently however, I’ve found that while I’ll still wait in line (I am British after all), I’ve grown less polite about it. Maybe it’s because I feel my oh-so-precious time is limited. I mean, isn’t everyone’s? Or perhaps it’s a micro level imitation of a more general intolerance running throughout our society. Because I’ve noticed a mean, toddler-like internal commentary switching on in my head like a light bulb, making me instantly judge anything that isn’t going my way at the pace I want it to.
And the place most likely to spark the touch paper of my fraying temper? The supermarket. Shoppers dawdling, pondering, enjoying the challenge: Oreos or Spritz; Pringles or Tyrrell’s? So start the itchy spiders of my impatience. Then there are the inconsistent trolly-pushers, tourists blocking the aisles in raptures about ‘French supermarkets’, hesitaters standing lost in thought infront of the very item I need. Recently I found myself at the end of a humungous check-out queue. I couldn’t help raising my eyes skywards and pointedly looking at my watch (I had nothing pressing). The maddening woman at the front faffed around packing groceries, before eventually electing to pay by cheque! Cheque! Her selfishness! Wasting time in my day with her annoying, old-fashioned, stupid payment choice. Hadn’t she heard of contactless? Mid-way through my internal tempertantrum, I noticed the wrinkled hand struggling to write the cheque. It was trembling, its owner clearly infi rm, yet doing her best to maintain an independent life. Instantly my anger switched to shame.
“Wasting time in my day with her annoying, oldfashioned, stupid payment choice. Hadn’t she heard of contactless?”
Inside I’d ripped into the character of an entirely blameless stranger, whose condition is probably a constant grind, because I found her behaviour irritating. Surely, at 39 years old, I should have learned the importance of walking a mile in another’s shoes? I should be mature enough to consider the nuances of a situation before judging it? How often have I stopped the queue because I’ve forgotten to weigh a vegetable? I was, I realised, a horrible, judgemental, hypocrite.
According to psychologists, the tendency to derive negative personality traits from someone’s behaviour or how they look is common in ‘individualist’ cultures such as Europe and North America. Political commentators way back in 1983 suggested that the Labour Party lost the general election after Neil Kinnock, the then leader of the party, tripped and fell on a beach during a photo decision-making). India and Asian countries are ‘collectivist cultures’ apparently, where people are more inclined to judge actions according to situations. Rather than assuming Kinnock’s clumsiness caused his mis-hap, these cultures may have attributed the fall to the fact the ground was likely slippery (a probable circumstance); this reaction is necessarily more tolerant because it’s not inferring any characteristic, it’s merely observing the circumstances around the behaviour.
“In our busy world, speed and clarity are important. But should we slam dunk people who can’t express themselves quickly enough”
Plenty of other photo-ops have gone similarly awry – Google ‘Ed Miliband’ and it still auto-fills ‘bacon sandwich’ – all because in the West we often believe we can judge a person at a glance. According to me, the lady carefully packing her groceries was selfish and disorganised. Were I more ‘collectivist’, I might have managed to assess her behaviour according to the circumstances and perhaps I would have noticed her frailness more quickly, and congratulated the compassionate cashier for allowing her to take her time. The result would have been a far calmer shopping experience for me, less anxiety for the lady packing her bags and a whole lot of negative energy saved all-round. And no shamehangover to boot. Win – Win.
I imagine we’ve all been on the wrong side of this fence at some point. As an anglophone living in France, I often feel the irritation and impatience when francophones have to decipher me. It’s rare that native speakers (of any country, not just France) assume the best of non-native speaker. We all know a stereotypical Brit speaking s-l-o-w-l-y and loudly to Johnny Foreigner. And I fully understand why – it takes too long. I’ve lost count of the times I’ve agonisingly tried to explain the simplest situation, or fished around in my brain for the right word, only to pronounce it incomprehensibly when I’ve found it minutes later. People rush to complete my sentences to speed up the exchange but rarely with what I actually want to say. Aware of their frustration I usually give up; it’s just going to cause embarrassment, irritation and prolong an awkward situation. In our busy world, speed and clarity are important. But should we slam dunk people who can’t express themselves quickly enough, deeming them instantly less competent than we are? I’ve been on the receiving end of this and it’s crushing (making it all the more remarkable that I’m so Ussain Bolt off the blocks when judging others).
The supermarket-cheque-lady was my enlightenment moment. I now realise that understanding a situation depends on my own perspective and I tell you, it’s been liberating! Mercifully I’ve always internalised my irritation, so nothing obvious has changed. But internally there’s a world of difference. The small act of resisting a snap-judgement immediately frees up time that would otherwise have been spent being frustrated. Choosing not to be cross leaves me calmer, and with confidence that I don’t (and won’t) need to feel ashamed. It’s a bit like being strong enough not to eat the whole packet of Jaffa Cakes you’ve just opened – you might feel deprived for a second, but the lasting sense of victory and relief makes it worth it!