When it comes to social interactions, I’m pretty awkward, but I do my best to behave politely and respectfully to others, observing social norms such as not eating smelly food in confined spaces or where people have to stay for a while, not invading others’ personal space where I can help it and not talking loudly in quiet spaces.
Not everyone follows these norms for various reasons, and it can feel like someone should stand up and tell them, and maybe that someone should be you?
Maybe not. Over the years, I’ve learned these three truths that I bring to mind in these situations.
1: Everyone Lives By Their Own Rules
Even though we may use the same transport or walk the same streets, we are all very different from each other. You and your neighbour have completely different backgrounds, come from different cultures, hold different values, so of course the people you come across and interact with in public are going to be as different from you as your neighbours are.
What we find rude, other people may see as normal, and vice versa. We could easily be offending others without even knowing it.
We don’t walk around wearing a sandwich-board with our rules listed on them so that everyone knows what we do and don’t find acceptable, but we often assume that the unwritten and unspoken rules are well known simply because they are so well known to us.
2: You Can’t Change Everyone
Even if you convince one person to behave in a more socially acceptable way, such as putting away their food, or turning down their headphones, not everyone will listen to you.
Reasons for this could be that they:
- are tired/frustrated/angry
- don’t understand
- don’t care
- have other/bigger things on their mind
- are retaliating to something you’ve done to make them feel uncomfortable
- enjoy confrontation
And even when you successfully get someone to change their behaviour, it takes some energy from you, are you willing to expend that on strangers every day?
That last question brings me to my third truth.
3: When You Try To Correct Someone, You Are Robbing Yourself Of The Chance To Build Up Resilience
When someone is doing something that is bothering you, it’s worth trying to remember that you are actually making a choice to allow yourself to be bothered.
You’ll notice other people who don’t appear to be bothered at all, or they are slightly bothered but occupy themselves more deeply with whatever distraction they have available.
You can speak up and hope they stop, but if they don’t then you will be even more bothered than before and will have also robbed yourself of the opportunity to build up resilience.
This is something I try to practice every day, because if I could tolerate all sorts of annoying, disruptive behaviour that other people exhibit, I get to take that resilience with me everywhere I go. This is something you don’t get when you decide to confront and correct people.
Practising resilience is even more useful when it’s with someone you see every day, like a co-worker. If you make the effort to endure the annoyance, distracting yourself or taking a break when it seems to be too much, it will be much easier to tolerate strangers for short bursts of time when encountering them in public or on transport.
Don’t get me wrong, I’m not advocating ignoring when someone is doing something morally wrong, you will do better for yourself and those around you by speaking up in those situations.
Summary (or TL:DR)
- Everyone lives by their own rules, they have their own background or culture where their behaviour is normal
- You can’t change everyone, even if one person listens, most won’t.
- When you try to correct someone, you are robbing yourself of the chance to build up resilience. The world is not going to run out of people who do things that bother you, if you learn how to deal with it, you will benefit from that every day.
In summary, if someone is eating noisily, playing their headphones loudly, taking up two seats while you’re standing (and there isn’t someone in need of a seat suffering nearby), or any other annoyances that aren’t actually hurting anyone, remembering these three truths and overcoming how you feel is going to benefit you so much more than “fixing” the annoyance.