Updated: Aug 4, 2020
When COVID-19 and sheltering in place changed the way we live in the United States (notice I didn’t say “Quarantine”, which is significantly different than SIP), here in California, all kinds of new signage was going up. Everywhere we went – if we went anywhere at all - there were “rules” posted: wear a mask, stay 6 feet apart, wash your hands, don’t touch your face. As a hyper-observant person, I was reading it all and following the rules.
I was watching the news at night, listening to my morning radio time when getting ready for the day, and felt I was “up on things”. I was the person who had Clorox wipes in a baggy with me all the time, had multiple masks in my car and purse, and wore vinyl gloves into a store so I wasn’t touching the cart (I have since learned that this is unnecessary), wiping down my car handles, steering wheel, groceries, doorknob...yeah. That was me. When coming out of the store with my cart, I used my automatic hatch opener on my car, put the groceries into the back of my SUV and automatically closed the back – never touching the used gloves to my car. I went to the trash can, I took off my gloves by rolling them inside out pulling from the inside of my wrist (having spent a decade in hospital administration, I felt like a master of this technique that I never used until COVID) and tossing them into the parking lot bin. I did it RIGHT. I was paying attention, protecting myself and my family.
As the appointed person to do all of our grocery shopping, I saw the landscape change over several weeks. I learned to allow 2 hours minimum for a trip to the store, considering that we would wait in line outside for anywhere from 10 – 30 minutes before even getting inside. I would bring bluetooth headphones and a podcast to listen to on my phone, or a book to read as I waited. I learned that the shopping itself was the shortest part of the trip, but waiting to get in and then waiting in the checkout line were the worst time-suckers. I enjoyed the ‘trip’ to the store, as that was my time alone, my change of scenery, my interaction with other San Franciscans.
Although I wasn’t excited to give up the liberating activity of grocery shopping, we got frisky and thought we would try ordering groceries for delivery, to reduce exposure. Unfortunately, it didn’t do much to reduce my trips to the store, as there was literally never a time that we got all of our critical items for cooking, due to ‘out of stock’ issues (and I’m not talking about toilet paper or cleaning products, but SUPER critical things like tarragon and crunchy, no sugar peanut butter).
So when I returned to the store, after a few weeks of being away, I still felt like a pro, and knew what to do. But what I didn’t know (insert dissonant chord here), is that now the grocery stores had “directions”. Most aisles were now ONE WAY, indicated by large red stickers on the floor of each aisle. That first trip to the store, I went the wrong way a few times. If I was too far down the aisle to correct, I would simply come out the other end and hope nobody saw me. Occasionally, some masked person would give me the stink-eye and I would realize in that very moment that I had done it again: I was going the wrong way. But then I had learned the rules, and corrected my horribly errant, unintended mass-homicidal ways. I even gave myself a break by telling myself: “They should have the signs all the way down the aisle, not just at the ends – there is too much activity at the ends, and people won’t notice the stickers on the floor at the entrance to the aisle.” And by “people”, I mean me. After all, I obsessively identify and fix problems in my head. I can’t stop myself from seeing how things can be done more efficiently, more effectively, more sustainably and with improved communication/messaging. It’s my charming little affliction.
The next time I went to the store, I an expert, perpetually seeing and following the floor directions. When people went the wrong way, I got SUPER MAD in my head. Like, REALLY ANNOYED. I may have even said in my head “HOW HARD IS IT???” But then I remembered: I was that person last week. Unlike some friends who had to endure full-out altercations in the store over someone going the wrong direction or touching too many things on a shelf, I was lucky: Nobody yelled at me, nobody corrected me, I figured it out and corrected myself...all on my own. I had a friend (who is oft annoyed with others, truth be told) tell me she was in the store and someone was going the wrong direction, so my friend said, “You’re going the wrong direction.” The person responded with “It’s okay.” And my friend said, “No, it’s not. That’s why there are directions.” The other person said, “It’s really not that big a deal.” Now my friend was fully triggered: “YES, IT IS”. Then they parted ways, and the story sat in her head and she remained not only annoyed, but fully triggered and still pissed off about it until she told me the story. She might even still be mad, but I'm smart enough not to ask. Anyway - I said, “Yeah, it’s annoying, but maybe not worth fighting about and carrying home with you? This is one of those little things that you get to just let go of!” Just last week in late July - now months since the ONE WAY signs were posted - I had gone to the store for just a few items. I was finished with my list, then heard a ‘ping’ on my phone asking me to get “good popsicles”. Instead of going to the check-out line, I went to the freezer section, directly to the popsicles. I passed a family going the opposite direction. The woman had her husband and her 3 year old son with her, and she had kindly asked her son to watch out, because I was coming down the aisle and he was in my way. She smiled under her mask and said “Sorry” and I smiled back and said, “I have 2 myself – I totally understand.” And as I exited the aisle, I realized that I had been going the wrong way. She had every right to be annoyed with me, but she either didn’t know I was “wrong” or chose not to correct me, but rather corrected her son for being in my way as I went the wrong direction. I felt like such a jerk, because, unknowingly, I was “that person”. I truly wanted to go back and tell her I was sorry I went the wrong way and thank her for her kindness. But I couldn’t go that direction … because … rules.
This whole thing is just a big fat (phat) life metaphor: We get to choose what we allow to take over our thoughts and derail an otherwise positive mindset. Or we can be a victim to a negative mindset by allowing it to foment ideas that people are stupid, annoying, oblivious – choose your poison word. We can choose to take the negative, judgmental thought and ride it like a raging roller-coaster, or we can let it go – we can just CHOOSE to get off that ride. Even the most conscious people get distracted.
And how about this little nugget: I can guarantee you that we have all created that feeling in someone else at one time or another, likely more times than we could ever imagine. We are thoughtful, considerate, have good manners, and in our worst moments, forget it all and set someone else off. I would venture to say we do it more than we know, even if we think we are hyper-conscious. After all, everyone has observations that they make and let go, and observations that trigger them and that they hold onto, based on their ‘lens’, their experiences or their beliefs. I make mistakes that trigger others, for sure. I consider myself a thoughtful, observant, service-oriented person. I also drive too fast, am hyper-competitive and walk with so much purpose that I even annoy myself. People who walk leisurely, look at their phones when they walk, change lanes on the freeway for no reason, don’t return their shopping carts, didn’t see the thousand signs to pay their parking ticket BEFORE exiting, , don’t stir the peanut butter to the bottom of the jar, have full-voiced conversations on their cell phones indoors in a café or store, jog or ride bikes with no mask on and pass me within 10 feet while I’m taking a walk (with my mask that I can put on immediately when I see someone approaching, because I'm superior in my thoughtfulness of others) …all of this annoys me NO END. Because I have it all figured out. Everyone else is not even trying.
So what do we get out of reacting so strongly to those behaviors, those human “errors”, or those people who simply don’t share our views about what is a big deal or how to do things the right way?
Does it do any good to say “You’re going the wrong way”, when you don’t know the outcome of that decision to engage? Further, does it make sense to engage beyond the "It's okay" response?
Does it do you actual harm for someone to think “It’s okay”, if they are wearing a mask and perhaps even looking/breathing away from you as you pass? Think about it. Sure, I watch the news, I listen to the world’s top epidemiologist Dr. Fauci, and I am aware that ‘rules’ and information change as the experts learn more about how this virus behaves. But if that person is wearing a mask, they turn their head as they pass you within 6 feet, and have passed you in a matter of seconds, is that acceptable? Of course it is. Are you allowed to be annoyed? Sure, if that’s your first reaction. Do you need to engage to call out their obvious lack of sensitivity, get them to face you, to respond, to fully engage and escalate a situation that could simply have ended in 2 seconds without any harm at all? Probably not. My guess is that in general, people are concerned and are doing their best. They do think they are being safe.
COVID19 is simply a metaphor in this blog. The point is: What if we just assume people are doing the best they can? In life. How about at work, as leaders or team members? What if we don’t see a comment, a look, a poor decision or statement that someone on our team makes as a threat, an attack, or that they are actively trying to undermine us? Take a breath. I mean it. Take that first moment where you feel that perceived threat, take a breath, and consider that it maybe is not a threat at all. Consider that it is another way that someone sees something. You can note it, and you can make the choice about what to do next, given that your first human response may not be the best.
And how about this crazy idea: this all could simply be a miscommunication. You thought you were clear. They heard something different than you were certain you had said clearly. Who is right and who is wrong? You can choose to be right, or you can choose to re-engage in a healthy, calm way, even as simple as "When we talked about XXX yesterday, what was your take-away?" Or, a practice I learned to use a few years ago is to ask that parting question before a meeting ends, to ensure the messaging is landing the way it was intended, and that people know the next steps and are moving forward together.
I need to remind myself to take a breath, assume people are doing their best, and that they aren’t actively trying to kill me. They just might learn at a different pace and in a different style, internalize different risks than I do, and make different choices. But none of these things make their actions and responses better or worse than mine.
We are all on our paths, and the arrows may not always be the only direction we can go and still be safe.