Friday, April 11, 2008

Annoying? Yes, but I don't mean to be so don't be mean to me

Photo by slushpup (Flickr)

The photocopier is out of toner.


You wait until all the bosses leave so you can make a hundred copies of your CV and the photocopier is out of toner.

What do you do? Some people will just shrug their shoulders and walk away. Some will swear, under their breath or out loud. Some will kick the photocopier.

What makes the difference? Everybody is annoyed that the darn thing is out of toner but only some get really angry.

In all likelihood, the ones who get really angry are the ones who believe, at some level of their minds, that the photocopier ran out of toner for the express purpose of annoying them. Or maybe it's not the photocopier. Maybe it's the gods. Maybe they're sitting up there on Mount Olympus figuring out ways to annoy people. Or it's the company. The company, which doesn't even know how badly its employees need to photocopy their CVs, has let the photocopier run out of toner so that the people who work there will be annoyed.

The essential point is that people get madder than usual if they think something that annoys them was done in order to annoy them. I believe we all think in this way far more often than we realise. The belief that people do things to annoy us is running along there at the back of our minds along with all those other beliefs to which we don't pay much attention.

It's annoying enough if the secretary doesn't type a letter on time, a delivery arrives late or the boss or waits until Friday evening to ask you to stay back on Friday evening. That, however, does not mean these people do things things for the purpose of annoying us. Similarly your teenage daughter did not paint the walls of her room black just in order to torment you. It's enough to be annoyed over the black walls without also assuming she actually set out to bug you (hang in there, by the time she's 30 she'll be a regular Martha Stewart, hopefully without the criminal record).

In the self-help movement Recovery Incorporated, they like to say that disappointments, accidents and annoyances come along about every five minutes so don't make it worse by assuming that these things are being done intentionally to get at you.

Every five minutes? Well, I've had days like that.

But how do you know that things are not being done deliberately to annoy you? Sometimes it's obvious, of course. The rain doesn't really wait for you to leave the office before it comes pouring down. You know that, however much you might grumble that it does. And it's very doubtful indeed if any supplier in his or her right mind is going to delay a delivery just to make you mad at them. In other cases you don't actually know what the motivation of the other person is. That's ok. You can just stay in that "don't know" zone instead of assuming the worst.

If you insist on assuming the worst, you're going to give yourself a much harder life than is necessary and you won't exactly be a bundle of joy for other people to be around either.

We live in a world which, almost of necessity, is largely indifferent to us. It cannot revolve around any one of us because you cannot organise a world that way. Therefore the world is full of events which don't suit any one of us. In fact it is an absolute dead certainty that our lives will be peppered with inconveniences. Some of these inconveniences we can change but most have to be accepted with grace. Otherwise we are in danger of becoming, in the oft-quoted words of George Bernard Shaw, "a feverish, selfish little clod of ailments and grievances, complaining that the world will not devote itself to making you happy".

Let me admit at once that I have been that clod and will probably be that clod again from time to time. But I hope to avoid cloddism as much as I can. And I think my best chance of avoiding that fate lies in repeating to myself, as often as is called for, a favourite phrase of members of Recovery Inc:

People do things that annoy me, not to annoy me.

(This article first appeared in my series The Other Side in Business & Finance magazine in September 2004).

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