Speaking words of wisdom, let it be...
November 4, 2010 9:50 AM   Subscribe

I would like to learn to behave more graciously. What everyday injustices and annoyances do healthy people deal with by simply "letting it go"? What does "letting it go" look like in practice - what do you do/say, and how do you feel afterwards? And can I identify those situations when I really should stand firm so as not to be taken advantage of?

I grew up with a crazy, occasionally abusive mother who had a near pathological need to "stand up for herself". She simply could not let things slide. If it seemed like someone might have cut the line at the grocery store, she would argue with them. If she got bad service at a store, she would loudly tell the assistant how incompetent they were. She was a stickler for the nuts and bolts of good manners, but unspeakably rude in the face of others' imperfections.

Since I got away from her, I've been doing my best to treat others gently. I've done some counselling, and it's helped. But I worry sometimes that I was raised with a flawed sense of which problems require an assertive or combative approach, and which are better handled by simply "letting it go". Sometimes I find myself in petty arguments, feeling that I am in the right, but also thinking, "Why am I doing this? Why didn't I just let it go?"

So, how do you choose when to stand firm, when to fight, and when to let things go? How do you respond graciously even when you feel you've been wronged? And how can I learn to do the same?
posted by anonymous to Human Relations (32 answers total) 55 users marked this as a favorite
Let the guy in the other car merge in front of you.
posted by Kangaroo at 9:58 AM on November 4, 2010 [8 favorites]

I find that reminding myself that for the most part people are doing the best they can and that all of us can sometimes be kind of clueless helps a lot. Giving people the benefit of doubt makes the day way more pleasant.
posted by Pineapplicious at 10:00 AM on November 4, 2010 [11 favorites]

So my rule of thumb is to ask "What do I really want out of this situation?" So if someone cuts in line, I have to think, "Do I want this person to go behind me because I'm in a hurry? Or do I really just want a sincere apology and acknowledgement that they did something wrong?" The former is possible by making a scene - the latter, almost never. Same thing with customer service - is there an actual problem that needs to be fixed, or do you just want acknowledgement that you're right?

It sounds like your mother had a fixation on getting people to admit she was right. It really doesn't work very well, because confronting people like that - particularly angrily - almost always makes them defensive. So there tends to be a bunch of escalation, and then everyone leaves mad.

If you can hold in your head the idea that it's not usually very important or useful to get other people to admit they were in the wrong for its own sake, I think you'll have an easier time judging whether or not something is worth standing up for.
posted by restless_nomad at 10:01 AM on November 4, 2010 [23 favorites]

When someone cuts you off in traffic/in line somewhere: I'm lucky I have enough time in my day to not be an asshole.

If you get bad service somewhere: Here's where you should likely fight for yourself. You don't need to yell (and the first internal rule of customer-facing jobs is that the first person to cuss/raise voice loses). Just state your problem, then state why it's a problem, then state how you'd like it fixed. "I ordered my salad with the viniagrette, but received it with the ranch. Can you get that fixed for me?" "This steak comes with the baked potato, but I didn't receive it until after I was finished with my meal. I don't believe I should have to pay the full price when I didn't receive the full meal."

It's pretty easy once you learn how it goes. Things that matter to you, stand up for yourself. Minor inconveniences, let it go. But learn how to speak up without raging and looking like a loud, inconsiderate jerk. That's really all you can do.
posted by Night_owl at 10:03 AM on November 4, 2010 [2 favorites]

I'm a fairly outspoken type myself, and I will ask to speak to the manager (esp with off-shored customer service phone ops.) when I can see that I'm getting the runaround. I almost never confront the first employee I deal with--they have no power to effect any change. I recently, in a work-related issue, called the COO of a major corporation, and got an apology and a discount for my client.

If you're not going to lose a great deal of time or money, and only you can decide what "a great deal" means to you, I think it's better to ignore the slight, the dolt, the poorly executed. I don't care about losing face, personally. I also try to decide if incompetence or malice is at work--and if the other person is just being dumb, I shrug and walk away.

I didn't think this incident warranted any further action, for instance.

I love to be right, but I also love my time and emotional equilibrium. Most of the time--it's not worth expending any energy, psychic or otherwise, in trying to correct the other person. If I can't get a tangible outcome (discount, extra goodies, etc.) I don't confront or engage. Maybe that's crass, but I like to pick my battles.
posted by Ideefixe at 10:10 AM on November 4, 2010 [1 favorite]

Like sio42, I try to see people as reflections of myself. I try to imagine doing what they're doing, and in most cases it's really easy.

In the cases where it's not easy, or I have specifically calculated a response, or it seems "worth it" for some reason, I pipe up. But this doesn't happen nearly as often as it used to.
posted by hermitosis at 10:10 AM on November 4, 2010

Waiting is a big one I try to let go. One night I was at Cold Stone, waiting for some ice cream. It was all teens behind the counter, and the place was full of their friends. Everybody was laughing and carrying on, not a whole lot of hard work going on. I was getting annoyed and almost said something before I realized OMG, I do not want to be the asshole in the ice cream shop. Who wants to be crabby over completely trivial things? Not me. So what if I have to wait a little longer in line at a store? If I'm in that big of a hurry, why am I shoping in the first place?

That said, when it comes to waiting for the bus, it's every man for himself, and I will cut somebody if it means I won't be late for work. So, I guess I still have things to work on...
posted by ThePinkSuperhero at 10:10 AM on November 4, 2010 [3 favorites]

I try (now -- I was not always great with this) to be conscious of other people's motivations, and constantly try to empathise. Why did this person (do this thing that appears to me to be screwed up)? That helps a lot.

Also: how much will this matter in a year? In a month? In twenty-four hours? If I feel the urge to chip at somebody for some perceived transgression I try to stay quiet, with the idea that if it is important to discuss, it will still be important tomorrow and I can bring it up then -- and the conversation will be better tomorrow, because I'll be calmer and have had time to mull it over. But a great deal is dismissed as the trivia it is in just twenty-four hours.

Strive for objectivity. If it appears bad to you -- would it appear bad to others? Test it out a bit. Would other people care, or is it truly some bit of bullshit like queue-jumping in a supermarket? Yes, queue-jumpers are jerks, but it's so banal one ends up being a bit of a jerk oneself to get excited about it.

Next time you catch yourself thinking "Why am I doing this," just stop doing it. "I've been under a lot of stress lately and I am starting to realise I am over-reacting to this. I want to apologise; please forget I said anything," exit.

And make sure things are balancing out -- if you are the sort of kook who writes a lot of indignant letters to companies (like me), make sure you are also writing a lot of letters of praise, too. Try to make your indignations useful, gentle, the sort of thing you would want to hear yourself: "I am worried you got a bad batch from your supplier here, as this is not the sort of quality I am used to from your firm" instead of "You shits, you've ripped me off!" If you find you must be a squeaky wheel, be a polite and pleasant squeak; be mindful of not doing anything that would embarrass you later.
posted by kmennie at 10:12 AM on November 4, 2010 [2 favorites]

I am working on this, too. Not to get all Buddhist on you, but compassion is the key. An individual person's behavior makes perfect sense to him or her self, but others usually cannot see that because they are not in their head.
posted by allelopath at 10:13 AM on November 4, 2010 [2 favorites]

Honestly, I think the very first step is admitting that you are not always right.

It's kind of a tangential response, but the only close friends I've ever known who've had your problem (unwillingness to "back down," overwhelming concern about being "walked on," arguing with waiters about menu descriptions, etc.) also were mostly unable or unwilling to ever admit they were wrong.

I wonder if that inability to say, "Hey, you're right. I was wrong. Sorry," is connected with this insistence on arguing with people about perceived offenses.

What does "letting it go" look like in practice - what do you do/say, and how do you feel afterwards?

I think about this every single day, and multiple times every day. What it often looks like for me is absolutely nothing, aside from maybe a deep breath.

"Letting it go" is as simple and difficult as it sounds. I can honestly control my mind to not think about something. If you have an infuriating, insoluble problem, your best bet is to literally forget about it, i.e. push it out of your mind.

It's hard to explain how I do this, but it's the same thing I do when I do something shameful myself that cannot be corrected. You fucked up, you can't fix it, what use is feeling bad? Push it out of your active thoughts.

In some ways, it's comparable to how I learned how to sleep well. Block out all your thoughts and if you are tired, you will fall asleep quickly. I generally fall asleep in 2-5 minutes.

Other than that, yeah, give people the benefit of the doubt. You don't know the whole story.
posted by mrgrimm at 10:16 AM on November 4, 2010

I really, really try to live by the Golden Rule: I do unto others as I would like done unto me. If I want to be treated with compassion and kindness, I treat others that way. I say please and thank you, I make eye contact, and I try to keep in mind that everyone has their own issues going on in their lives. I also do a lot of my venting in my own head, not out loud, because I'm human and I can't always exude kindness and warmth.

There's another old adage that works really well, especially as good manners and kindness seem to be leaving society at an alarming rate: You catch more flies with honey than with vinegar. Let's say I'm at a busy restaurant. The server comes up to the table, obviously flustered because it's packed and he's overworked. I start out making eye contact and smiling, and just being a nice person. I guarantee you that the server's attitude changes almost instantly at that point. He knows I'm not going to be a pain in his ass, and the night goes smoothly. If I have to return something to a store and I don't have a receipt, a smile and an apology ("I'm so sorry I can't find my receipt. I know it makes it harder for you that way.") go a long, long way.

My point is that by starting every interaction with kindness and compassion, a lot of the wrongs don't get a chance to get started. How do I let go when I am wronged? I believe fully and completely in karma and I know that in the grand scheme of things, if I walk out of any situation having learned something, I "win."
posted by cooker girl at 10:23 AM on November 4, 2010 [3 favorites]

I found The Art of Happiness by the Dalai Lama to be instrumental in helping me let go of little things. And some big things too. It comes from a Buddhist perspective, and is primarily about "being happy", but a large portion of that (and of the book) is about letting go.
posted by Solomon at 10:25 AM on November 4, 2010

When a stranger does something asshole-ish, I imagine that their child / parent / spouse just died and they're distracted. When a loved-one does something annoying, I imagine them as a five-year-old. This works particularly well with partners and parents.

Secondly, I am one of those people who says "it is what it is." I know that this annoys some people but saying those words is my physiological cue to let it go.

Finally, as I've said in other posts, I have a conversation with the 75-year-old version of myself. Chances are she doesn't remember the person who cut the line at Duane Reade.

Your desire to be more gentle is admirable. At least half the battle.
posted by Siena at 10:26 AM on November 4, 2010 [5 favorites]

At some point in my life I started judging people not by the mistakes they made but by how they corrected their mistakes. So if the guy at McDonalds doesn't give me my McNuggets, I don't call him an idiot fast food employee and scream. I tell him I didn't get McNuggets. Most of the time they apologize, I get my McNuggets, he feels like he dodges a bullet and I go away knowing I could have been an asshole, but wasn't.

Also, I used to get very involved in internet forum drama. No more. There are these things called forums, perhaps you've seen one, where people comment on stuff and other people tell them they're wrong and then people get all into it and people lie awake at night fuming about the stuff they should have posted, or what they'll post tomorrow, or they get up at 3:00 AM and post something they need to get off their chest because, as that one dude wrote about in that stick figure comic, someone was wrong on the internet!

I ain't worth it. That guy on that forum you HATE WITH THE FURY OF A THOUSAND SUNS might be the same guy you were sitting next to at the pub last week, having a great time. Internet people are just people. People should be nice to people.
posted by bondcliff at 10:31 AM on November 4, 2010 [3 favorites]

I have a little decision tree. First, I ask myself "Why does this matter to me?" If the answer is "Because I'm right!," then I ask whether someone will be harmed if I am wrong/overruled, if I will lose more than a dollar in proving my rightness, if I may trigger a physical confrontation by holding my ground, or whether I am OK with shaming someone else. If any of those are true, I take a breath and decide whether it's still important enough to continue being present in the situation.
posted by catlet at 10:31 AM on November 4, 2010

I'm nonconfrontational, but I'm trying to curb my habit of being silently pissed off at petty things. If I really can't let go of my anger towards a stranger acting like an asshole, I like to pretend that as soon as they leave my sight, their car explodes or an anvil falls on their head. For all I know, it really happens, because I never see them again.

It also helps to remember that if I yell at a stranger for being an asshole, they're not going to think "oh dear, I was an asshole!" They're thinking you're the asshole.

Sometimes, when I'm just going about my daily business and in a normal mood, I do little compassion-cultivating exercises. Like, I'll be on the train and think about what would happen if the train crashed or if any of the strangers around me had a heart attack. Would I want to help? You bet. I also sometimes play a game where I have to think of one nice thing about everyone I pass. (NB: the thoughts have to be non-sexual. Staring at people's hot asses is not compassionate.) It's corny, but it helps.
posted by Metroid Baby at 10:36 AM on November 4, 2010

Surprised nobody has mentioned David Foster Wallace's 2005 commencement speech, This Is Water yet.

Key passages, to my mind:
Here is just one example of the total wrongness of something I tend to be automatically sure of: everything in my own immediate experience supports my deep belief that I am the absolute centre of the universe; the realest, most vivid and important person in existence. We rarely think about this sort of natural, basic self-centredness because it's so socially repulsive. But it's pretty much the same for all of us. It is our default setting, hard-wired into our boards at birth. Think about it: there is no experience you have had that you are not the absolute centre of. The world as you experience it is there in front of YOU or behind YOU, to the left or right of YOU, on YOUR TV or YOUR monitor. And so on. Other people's thoughts and feelings have to be communicated to you somehow, but your own are so immediate, urgent, real.
But most days, if you're aware enough to give yourself a choice, you can choose to look differently at this fat, dead-eyed, over-made-up lady who just screamed at her kid in the checkout line. Maybe she's not usually like this. Maybe she's been up three straight nights holding the hand of a husband who is dying of bone cancer. Or maybe this very lady is the low-wage clerk at the motor vehicle department, who just yesterday helped your spouse resolve a horrific, infuriating, red-tape problem through some small act of bureaucratic kindness. Of course, none of this is likely, but it's also not impossible. It just depends what you want to consider. If you're automatically sure that you know what reality is, and you are operating on your default setting, then you, like me, probably won't consider possibilities that aren't annoying and miserable. But if you really learn how to pay attention, then you will know there are other options. It will actually be within your power to experience a crowded, hot, slow, consumer-hell type situation as not only meaningful, but sacred, on fire with the same force that made the stars: love, fellowship, the mystical oneness of all things deep down.
Everyday slights and conflicts happen to us all. I found this speech to be a good reminder that there's more to it than what's going on inside my head, and that while inside my head is all that I immediately know about, it's not fair, or just, or right, to stop there.
posted by gauche at 10:37 AM on November 4, 2010 [23 favorites]

You know how when you play tug pf war with a dog, and the dog has it's teeth gritted and is doing that little head shaky thing and is going "rrrrr... grrrr... rrrrr" and suddenly you let go? The dog usually falls backwards a little and seems really surprised and happy that yay it finally has its toy!

I love that moment. That's what letting go of petty anger feels like for me, even when I'm not face to face with the object of my annoyance. That little moment when both of you fall backwards a little bit is always surprising and in my experience, is addictive. In my case my fundamental laziness is a factor- being angry and following up on anger takes waaay too much energy.
posted by MadamM at 10:47 AM on November 4, 2010 [4 favorites]

After spending time travelling in Asia, it really put my 'let things go' skills to the test. I try to live by 'what's done is done'.

I'll go ahead and tap the guy on the shoulder if he cut (maybe he didn't see the line? maybe no one has told him not to be a jackass), but won't worry about somebody who nearly hits me with a car while I bike or a taxi that that tries to rip me off.

There are exceptions of course if the offense is either dangerous or physically harmful. All of this has worked for me so far because I feel that I'm too preoccupied with myself to worry being right all the time or about waiting on other people's apologies.
posted by just.good.enough at 10:53 AM on November 4, 2010

So, how do you choose when to stand firm, when to fight, and when to let things go?

You have to decide what matters to you. Most times, at regular restaurants I go to, I'm willing to wait a little bit if the staff is busy with someone else, 'cause hey, they know me and I know they'll attend to me with good service, so as someone who's waited tables before, I know what it's like when you're in the weeds and there's a demanding customer. If I'm really hungry, I'll reach for compromise and ask them to bring a plate of bread and cheese or something light I know they can grab in a minute. I'm always polite but firm and I tip well, which helps ensure I can get the same level of service on feature visits. WIN WIN. The important thing here is that I'm thinking of myself, of course, but I'm also thinking of the other person. Life is constant series of being in situations with other people, some of them stressful. Recognizing that and treating other people as human beings helps immensely in getting through those situations.

Here's another example: earlier this year my health insurer was trying to get out out of paying something. My initial attitude was "Aww hell no, mother fucker, you're not sticking me with $1,500, fuck that". I cooled off, got my facts in order, thought about points of logic then proceeded to the telephone, with a pen and pad and carefully pressed my point up the chain, refusing to accept no and working my way up the chain. It took a while, longer than it should of, but they paid for it, 'cause dammit the situation called for them to do so.

How do you respond graciously even when you feel you've been wronged?

By being gracious and not assuming that the other person is out to get you, but instead that you have certain expectations of how you will be treated and striving, politely, always politely, for that standard you've set for yourself.

And how can I learn to do the same?

Start small and practice. Just choose some small trivial thing, something like TPS's situation, where it's really is trivial and isn't a big deal, so you can let it go at some point if it feels overwhelming. A simple "Excuse me, sir (or miss)..." while politely holding up your hand is way of getting their attention will coming off as respectful to them as a person. If they're still ignoring you, I'd reach behind the counter for napkins and spoons and walk down to where ever they were and putting a friendly on my face, say "I'm ready for ice cream!" Humor and being able to poke fun at yourself and/or the situation is often a good way of getting attention.

I would not say "Hey you kids!" or "You can play with your friends later, how about some service". That sets a wrong tone, IMO, a bad one which usually makes things worse or makes the other person feel shitty, which is bad.

The most important thing is to never, ever, under no circumstances, either 1) either lose your cool and/or 2) start name calling. Then you're attacking someone and putting them on the defensive and that never really works well. Keep them in perspective, remember you have larger concerns and just firmly, but politely, press your point and always be willing to politely w things up the management chain.
posted by nomadicink at 10:53 AM on November 4, 2010 [1 favorite]

I've loved spec80s advice ever since I read it a few years ago, in which she asks herself, What would Cary Grant do?

Your mom modeled behavior that you do not wish to emulate. Feel free to pick another role model and imprint.
posted by jamaro at 10:56 AM on November 4, 2010

I imagine their day has been totally awful - like they woke up to find their toilet had overflowed, ran over their cat while pulling out in their driveway, their spouse/kid has gastric flu, and they got to work late and got fired. This lets me assume they are not just being evil.

All bets off if they went totally out of their way to be evil though, or if the evil is extreme or crazy. If it is crazy evil then I try to ignore it for a different reason: it means they are capable of anything so be calm and faultlessly polite and get away ASAP. You can anonymously report them from a safe distance later.
posted by meepmeow at 11:10 AM on November 4, 2010

And finally for the sake of mental health {yours} remember--sometimes they've got it coming!!!

You don't have to swallow every bit of annoyance, every day. In fact, I believe those people are the often "the quiet man who one day went off at the post office"
posted by AuntieRuth at 11:26 AM on November 4, 2010

While I think this is good advice in general, considering what you've laid out about yourself, the best advice I could give you is to just focus on listening to others rather than asserting your own point of view. This is not the same as acquiescence. Truly listening to others—really hearing them—allows you to compose your thoughts and respond appropriately, as you would like to.

I believe that it's something that is hard for all of us to do regardless of our personal history, but in and of itself, if practiced by all, would make the world a much happier place.
posted by innocuous_sockpuppet at 11:40 AM on November 4, 2010 [1 favorite]

It's a cost/benefits issue. If the effort to fight the injustice is far more costly than the benefit, then you let it go. If the benefit is greater, then you stand your ground.
posted by dhruva at 5:01 PM on November 4, 2010 [1 favorite]

The last 10 years or so have been a learning process for me, trying to figure out when I really need to stand up for myself/others and when it's better to turn it on and just walk away. I try to ask myself "Am I going to care about this tomorrow?" (That prevents me from getting into a lot of internet arguments!) And when something triggers a kneejerk reaction in me, I try to extend the benefit of the doubt, and remember that I am undoubtedly always wandering into someone's path in the grocery store or whatever and that you never know what's going on in other people's lives (like the graduation speech above, which I hadn't read--and people who have that kind of thinking apparently live longer or have lower blood pressure or something, as I recall).
posted by wintersweet at 5:57 PM on November 4, 2010

Think about the answers to some questions:
Is the person deliberately trying to be mean to you, personally?
Are they having a bad day or operating under less-than-optimal circumstances that might be influencing the situation?
Is this a one-time event, or is this a problem that you have to deal with on a regular and consistent basis?
Is it going to bite you in the ass if you get into a screaming match with this person?
Do you want to get into a feud/screaming match with them at all?
Is this the hill you want to die on? Is is worth the ensuing drama that will probably happen?
posted by jenfullmoon at 6:04 PM on November 4, 2010

I blocked the complete stranger who insulted me without provocation on a mutual friend's FB page.
posted by brujita at 8:47 PM on November 4, 2010

Hey good for you for recognizing the problem. That's really cool. I'm sorry about your mom, but I think it says volumes that you're making the effort to change.

Someday, I want to be compassionate and patient one hundred percent of the time. I'm not there yet, so in the meantime when I run into problems I've been trying to fake it 'til I make it.

When I feel myself getting angry, I try to act like I'm with someone I want to impress with how put-together I am. Would I actually take that small offense personally and get really angry if I was standing next to [person I want to impress]? No, it would be so embarrassing, an overreaction, so I don't do it. Would I get this angry at even an admittedly silly situation if I was with [that favorite teacher]? No way, it would be childish, and the better response would be to laugh about it and do something proactive to change it.

Also sometimes at the end of the day I write down what I could have done differently with handling stress or anger. I feel more mindful when I have things down on paper and I can plan for what to do next time.

Good luck!
posted by pluot at 3:51 AM on November 5, 2010

Vote with your feet and your pocketbook. Don't complain, don't lose your composure, don't make a scene, but don't go back. That store or service station or hair salon or pub is now invisible to you.
posted by pracowity at 4:47 AM on November 5, 2010

I think Hanlon's Razor is what you're looking for:

Never attribute to malice that which is adequately explained by stupidity.

My cousin and I coined the phrase "greedy idiot" while playing a video game together (Pocky & Rocky for SNES, FWIW) in which he kept taking powerups which were both detrimental to him and would have helped me... /(_ _)/ ==3

People see something they think they should want for themselves, and they instinctually reach out for it without thinking about potential consequences.

Take, for example, the person who speeds ahead in traffic and then tries to cut in front of you. Wow! You just saved yourself 30 seconds in the grand scheme of things and, in the process, risked your (and everyone's around you) life!

Don't be a greedy idiot. But also realize that there are a whole lot of them in the world and don't let it get to you too much :-/
posted by StarmanDXE at 12:20 PM on November 5, 2010

You know, I guess I kind of missed the most important part:

When you're "arguing" with these greedy idiots you come across throughout your life, it really shouldn't be about making them admit that you're right as much as it should be about helping to educate them.

Don't get mad, don't try to get them to admit they're wrong. Tell them the simple facts plainly and courteously and then leave knowing that they will probably think back to that experience in the future and hopefully act differently :)

If you get mad and yell at them, all they'll remember when they think back is, "man, that person was an ass" as opposed to, "yeah, I guess he was right..."
posted by StarmanDXE at 12:25 PM on November 5, 2010 [1 favorite]

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