This post came to me on the fly. It’s not a formal message, focused on business or legal matters. Instead, this piece in the New York Times snapped my attention to the very informal, daily grind of human interactions that color our lives. We deal with tension, emotions, and conflict all day every day in a wide variety of scenarios. And though we might tend to emphasize those decisive institutional environs – the workplace, the family, an organization – a significant portion of our lives passes during the micro-exchanges of all the in-betweens: on the way to work, in line for coffee, dropping a child off at school. These moments are connective fabrics in our lives, and they are as real and as important as those contexts that we are more conditioned to think of as decisive for our career, or for our future. In them we live out our habits, our values, our hopes, and our expectations for how the people in our worlds should live amongst one another. Your opportunity to foster a culture of peace today might appear in the grocery line, or in a cab.
In the article, author Etgar Keret describes getting into a taxi with his four-year-old son, and being immediately uncomfortable with the driver’s aggressive and impatient attitude. When the child accidentally knocks over the (empty) ashtray from the center console, the driver explodes at the child, igniting Keret’s defensive anger, and the two have a testy exchange. Keret is then faced with the responsibly of fathering his son through the situation: explaining what happened, taking responsibility for his actions, and teaching his son the appropriate response to inflammatory emotions and the mistakes they sometimes engender. It’s a beautiful story, and I want to quickly highlight some of the major conflict related themes it challenges us to consider:
Serving Respect. Keret’s experience with the taxi driver is familiar to many of us: a grumpy or impatient service worker ends up channeling their frustrations in our direction. It’s not a pleasant experience, and it’s easy to feel peeved about it after a long day at the office – but it’s important to remember that the taxi is that person’s office, and it might be a lot less comfortable than yours. Service occupations are trying work. Not just because they are often under compensated and unstable jobs, but because those individuals are expected to constantly deliver a pleasant experience to customers while often being treated themselves as more or less invisible. Barbara Ehrenreich’s seminal investigative work on the service sector gave middle and upper classers a stark new window into the difficulties that face these workers, and the tough backgrounds from which they are often trying to shake loose. It can make a world of difference to reach out and actively exercise cognizant, intentional respect when a service worker is having a rough moment. In Keret’s story, the taxi driver’s final apology to the child is as rough around the edges as his preceding behavior, but it changed the nature of the experience for Keret, and likely for his son and the driver himself. It’s terribly important that we don’t let service workers and their humanity become invisible to us, especially if we are busily climbing ladders in our careers.
Handling emotions. When the taxi driver loses his temper, Keret in turn loses his – an understandable reaction, especially because it came from a position of protective parenthood. Still, when his son Lev asks him to explain the situation, Keret is forced to claim his actions and explain to Lev that it was a mistake to yell – even if the driver yelled first. What if you had to explain your actions in a micro-conflict to a child? Would you justify reactiveness and the power of your emotions, or would you admit that you could have been a bigger person? This is where these ‘in-between’ spaces expose our habits and practices, the reflexes that pop out when we aren’t paying close attention to our behavior. If we think our co-workers and our family members deserve our mindful respect and understanding, why wouldn’t we think that someone else’s co-worker or family member doesn’t? The interpersonal exchanges that lubricate our lives can spread peace and dignity, or they can ripple outwards with stress, anxiety, aggression, and conflict. We have the power to take all our interpersonal exchanges seriously, and cultivate our own ability to manage emotions and choose positive responses, even in a trying scenario. Doing so will serve everyone.
Innocence and honesty. Talking children through conflict can be incredibly challenging, but it also keeps us honest. It’s important to remember that a child won’t have the experience to fill in normative gaps and discern how or why a conflict develops. It is the adult’s job to find a way to articulate the logics at play in a way that helps the child make sense of things, as Keret does in the story. This is very important to the child developing his or her own healthy emotional tools for interpersonal exchanges. Furthemore, “being an adult” is not a good excuse for carrying on aggressive exchanges or conflict inducing behaviors: if while explaining the situation to a child it starts to sound strange and unjustified, it may be that it truly is. As I mentioned, it was the child’s inquisitive questions that ended up turning the tide in this story.
Ultimately, we can draw lessons here by asking ourselves why Keret’s story is so moving. Why is it so appealing to read how Keret took responsibility and explained his mistake to his child? Why do we sympathize with four-year old Lev when he remains dissatisfied with his father’s initial explanation of the driver’s behavior? And why does it so warm our hearts when that gruff, angry driver finally pulls over, looks the child in the eye and assures him that he really is sorry? Keret is a vivid storyteller, and in this story he reminds us of those small moments we crave in our daily lives, when everything working against harmony in the rough and tumble mess of city life can be transcended. These are the small victories and human connections we want to believe in, that’s why this story is striking. Making intentional choices to cultivate them will in the end feed our own sense happiness, peace, and gratification in our lives, too. It’s finally spring – when those little green tendrils start popping up in your flower beds will you water the weeds? Or the flowers you hope to see grow and blossom?
Ellen F. Kandell is a certified professional mediator and attorney with over 30 years of public and private sector experience. She provides mediation, group facilitation and training to diverse, national clients. Get in touch with her via email, LinkedIn, Twitter, or give her a call at 301-588-5390.