Well, actually I haven’t met her yet.
But that’s what my mail carrier said. She told me, “I met your new neighbor. She is really rude.” That was the conclusion my mail carrier came to following a “discussion” with my neighbor that took place via yellow sticky notes left for each other over the course of several days. At issue was the purported need for a new mailbox since the one that my neighbor was using had been lying on the sidewalk for most of a week after falling from its intended perch. After threats of no mail delivery from the mail carrier, the neighbor acquiesced and fixed the mailbox, but not without my mail carrier’s pronouncement to me and any other resident who would listen about our rude neighbor.
Hearing that, I immediately decided that there was no need to go over and meet my new neighbor. I was almost relieved that I had not wasted my time walking the 25 feet over to her house to introduce myself. I don’t need another rude person in my life. I live with two teenagers; need I say more? I continued to rationalize in the minutes that ensued: if I needed a cup of sugar or a flashlight, I have other neighbors I can go to. In fact, I was just about ready to tell my husband about our neighbor when . . .
I caught myself.
The reality was, I didn’t know a single thing about my neighbor. And when I thought about it some more, I really don’t know much about my mail carrier. Or their fuss, or what kind of a day either of them was having, or . . . well, anything. In short, in a fleeting moment, I almost wrote off my neighbor based on a two-minute story that had nothing to do with me.
Prescriptive Rule #1: Guard Words and Actions. How many times over the last 10 years of facilitating ELI courses have I encouraged people to think about the impact of their words and actions? The things said and unsaid. The actions taken and not taken. And reflecting on this exchange with my mail carrier, I was suddenly confronted with the impact not only of what we say and do, but also the danger of making snap judgments about people based on others’ perceptions. I hesitate to add up all the times I have asked someone what they thought of a particular person or team. . .and then accepted whatever summary they offered and made it my own, undoubtedly to my own detriment at times: missing out on a new friendship or potential collaborator.
Worse yet, I was rude. In those two minutes that I gossiped with my mail carrier and harbored unfounded beliefs about my neighbor to justify my decision to exclude her from my life, I engaged in exactly the kind of behavior that is the undoing of a community or workplace. We observe in our work at ELI that it’s the problems with rude and unprofessional behavior that trigger the most detrimental and costly problems in organizations — and not illegal behavior, as many might assume.
Throughout the world we are confronted with frequent examples of societal intolerances that jeopardize well-being and safety. For instance, at the time of this writing, three airplane flights in the last nine days were diverted due to angry passengers having heated disputes with their seatmates. News stories cited cramped seats as the primary cause for the fracases; as a frequent flyer, I don’t doubt that the seats were uncomfortably close. One passenger rationalized that her emotional outburst was attributable to the recent deaths of her two dogs. Instead, I will offer that the cramped seats or the dead dogs may have exacerbated the underlying issue, but ultimately it was rudeness that put lives at risk. And perhaps more to the point, the perceived scarcity of space and the anticipated threat that someone would take more than their fair share created a highly-charged atmosphere completely devoid of compassion or empathy.
So, reflecting on all of this, here are my action steps that I offer for your consideration:
- I will go over and introduce myself to my neighbor and welcome her to the neighborhood.
- I will leave a note for my mail carrier and tell her how much I have appreciated her taking such good care of us over the last 13 years.
- I will vow to make my own conclusions about a person’s character and not engage in gossip.
- I will offer caring to the people I encounter rather than judgment.
- And when someone seated in front of me on a plane leans back and puts their head in my lap, I will quickly finish my glass of wine and offer them a scalp massage.