What I Ultimately Learned From My Mortifying Mistake

To this day I’m mortified when I see a box of chocolates. Perhaps sharing this story may save you from embarrassing yourself in a similar way. I was in the Antwerp airport, heading back to San Francisco. Before settling into a seat at my gate I bought two indulgences for the flight home, John LeCarre’s Our Kind of Traitor, and a box of Pierre Marcolini truffles, one of the most popular brands in Europe.

Within minutes I was swept into LeCarre’s masterful spy mystery. But I promised myself I would savor my truffles, eating each one slowly. At some point the motion of the man’s arm next to me caught my attention. He, too, was reading – as he casually took a truffle out of my box that was on the narrow table between us.

Flummoxed, I made a throat noise, which went unnoticed. I was angry and cowed, so I just move my box closer to me. He took three more by the time my row was called to board. I grabbed the box, got up quickly, as did he, and gave him a thin-lipped smile that he returned with vague warmth. It was only when I was in my seat, with my book and box of chocolates opened that I looked down and saw my unopened box buried in the side pocket of my commodious purse where I’d absentmindedly put it right after buying it. As you’ve anticipated, the box I was holding was his.

As soon as the safety belt light went off I managed to find him and apologize, arousing several disgusted expressions from nearby passengers. His low-voiced, gentle “It was a delight to see you enjoying them, truly. I’ve been in your place in other situations so thanks for the opportunity to play this role this time as you undoubtedly will in the future. Now go enjoy your chocolates and your book.

Don’t let somebody else determine your behavior.
It is humbling to get glimpses of how blind we are to what is actually happening, especially if we feel wronged or irritated when others appear to be acting badly. When driving we are irritated at pedestrians who dawdle in the crosswalk or walk against the light, yet our righteous feelings reverse when we are pedestrians.

Put plainly, context deeply influences our perceptions and actions. That’s why, as Snopes reported, commuters rushed past renowned violinist Joshua Bell when he played, incognito, one of the most intricate pieces ever written with a violin worth 3.5 million dollars, while standing in a Washington, D.C. subway.

He may have been just another street performer panhandling for spare change. That’s why, when asked to count the times individuals pass a basketball back and forth in a video, we miss the man in a gorilla costume stroll through the scene.

Situational blindness can be self-sabotaging. It can sour relationships. It may turn everyday encounters into bruised transactions rather than opportunities to enjoy a moment that might blossom into other possibilities.

When asked what they see when looking at an aquarium, for example, Americans and Western Europeans usually comment on the school of fish swimming to the right, and one fish swimming left. Japanese observers, on the other hand, usually describe the arrangement of plants and color of the water as well as the swimming formations. Asian cultures appear to “notice and consider context in a way than many Americans do not,” writes psychology professor Sam Sommers in Situations Matter. To mitigate such blindness and turn more situations into opportunities to connect rather than conflict, consider adopting these two mindsets.

Go slow to go fast
We are hard-wired by our survival instinct, to respond sooner, more intensely and longer to what we perceive as negative behaviors than positive ones. Simply knowing this, when you start to feel upset, — and that you are blind to the other person’s true feelings and motivation – can give you pause to learn more. Someone’s apparent abruptness, for example, may be a delayed reaction to the people who had just acted badly towards them. Your natural instinct is to either leave, which solidifies their upset, or escalate, mirroring the other person’s offensive behavior which will cause you both to spiral up in intensity.

As that person acts badly toward you he may resent you for seeing him behave that way, quickly rationalize his rude response to preserve his self-esteem, and retaliate for his perceived grievance. Instead, know speed and loudness increase tension, so adopt the calming Slower, Lower and Less Effect. While maintaining a genial facial expression (slightly elevated eyebrows), speak and move more slowly, lowering your voice level and the amount, speed and level of your gestures. As the stripper, Gypsy Rose Lee once said, “Anything worth doing well is worth doing slowly.”

Look to their positive intent, especially when it appears they have none.
Even if someone is intentionally rude, de-escalation makes life easier for your both. Speak to the side of that person you genuinely like – and that he likes in himself. In so doing make evoke the appearance of that trait

People like people who like them.
The more he enjoys how he acts around you, the greater the likelihood he will see a trait in you he admires – even if you haven’t exhibited it. That’s an example of the Fundamental Attribution Error where, for example, if we see someone cheat, we presume she would cheat in any situation. The upside of such contextual blindness is that once I see you in a possible light, I tend to project onto you the blanket assumption that you are always that way.

Wrote Malcolm Gladwell, in What the Dog Saw, “In the late 1920s, psychologist Theodore Newcomb analyzed extroversion among adolescent boys at a summer camp. He found that how talkative a boy was—say, at lunch—was highly predictive of how talkative that boy would usually be at lunch.… But told you almost nothing about how he would behave in a different setting.”

We assume that personalities are fixed yet they aren’t. As Multiplicity author, Rita Carter discovered we have diverse facets to our personality, some unbecoming as you discover in Out of Character by David DeSteno, Ph.D., and Piercarlo Valdesolo.

The upside is that while positive traits may be less entrenched than we imagine, our negative ones are also less fixed. Consequently, it is easier than we think to evoke a better side to someone, even when they are acting badly. The truffle-eating gentleman spoke to my kind side rather than referring to my rudeness in taking his truffle box. In so doing, he reinforced a positive quality I value in myself. He also evoked my admiration for him, and modeled behavior I have since tried to emulate. What could have escalated into an even more embarrassing incident instead served as an indelible lesson in paying it forward – in practicing bonding behavior so needed in our increasingly complex yet connected world with a steep rise in anxiety and loneliness.

Every situation with strangers can be an opportunity to bring others’ better side. Then they are more likely to see and support yours. Also, times with strangers can be opportunities to practice latent parts of your personality or interests, as Melinda Blau notes in Consequential Strangers. My friend Arthur is consumed with software coding at his crowdsourcing start-up yet he still makes time to play the tenor sax with pick-up groups. They see an emotive side of him that does not appear as much at work. Despite having a three year-old and twins who just turned one, my friend Claire takes night classes in advanced biology, not just to keep up with her career, but to exchange ideas with her peers that are not possible at home.

Don’t let somebody else determine your behavior.
Simply recognizing how I can easily leap to wrong conclusions, biased by context, sometimes enables me to adopt these two mindsets. The indelible remembrance of that gentleman’s warm, affirming response to my halting apology is a recurring nudge for me to act similarly, not that I always manage to do so.

At any time we can alter the character role we play in the next chapter of the adventure story we want our lives to become. We can change scripts, pull in new characters and even enter new scenes.

Hint: We can discover how to bring out others’ better sideso they are more likely to see and support ours.

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