I walked up to the counter to place my order for dinner Tuesday evening and I gave the cashier a friendly greeting and a smile. She just glared straight ahead and muttered a few words that I didn’t understand.
I felt annoyed and started to snap back at her in an angry tone. And then in the flash, I suddenly remembered an old story which was told by long-time Chicago newspaper columnist Sydney J. Harris many years ago.
As Harris tells the story, he was with a friend who bought a newspaper from a newsstand. His friend cheerfully thanked the vendor, who completely ignored his thanks.
“He’s a sullen fellow, isn’t he?” Harris said as the pair walked away.
“Oh, he’s that way every night,” his friend said with a shrug.
“Then why do you keep being so polite to him?” Harris asked.
“Why not?” the friend asked. “Why should I let him decide how I’m going to act?”
That story flashed into my mind in the long moment tonight when I was deciding how to respond to the cashier who had just been rude to me. And I realized how ridiculous it was for me to let a rude, sullen teen-ager to dictate how I was going to respond to her.
So instead of snapping at her angrily, I changed my own attitude — and I softened my heart.
“You seem as though you’ve had a tough day,” I said. “Is everything OK?”
And that changed everything.
“I had a really bad day at school,” she said, smiling a feeble smile this time. “I don’t feel good and I think I failed a big test. Nothing’s gone right.”
There was a little bit more to the exchange — since nobody else was behind me — and then she took my order. She still wasn’t having a great day, but she was friendly enough to me. And I walked away from the exchange calmer than I would have if I had stuck with my first angry reaction.
I wish I could remember this lesson all the time, but I have a stubborn angry streak which wants to react quickly to people who don’t act as I think they should. And I know I’m not alone in this.
Most people don’t act. They react.
They let other people determine what their actions and attitudes and lives are going to be. Those few who act instead of reacting have something different going for them. These people know who they are, what their personal standards for themselves are — and they hold themselves accountable for living up to their standards, regardless how other people act.
We are trained in our culture to react angrily when we don’t get the treatment we deserve, but this reaction hurts only us. It keeps us angry. It keeps us tense. And it poisons our attitude in other things we do.
I’m not proud of the fact that my first reaction toward this young woman today was to react in anger and return rudeness for rudeness, but I’m happy that I remembered the old lesson from Sydney Harris.
All of us will be happier in life if we know what our standards of conduct are for ourselves — and if we remember to proactively control our actions rather than allowing other people to goad us into reacting to them.