Today my husband shared a story that Hispanic comedian Gabriel Iglesias, better known as Fluffy, told about his appearance in a country in the Middle East. All of his jokes were falling flat. He looked out at the audience more carefully, noticing that the room was full of “mean” faces. He finally said, “Why do all of you look so mean?” Someone in the audience shouted out, “We’re all hot man! Get an air-conditioner in here and we’ll all look happy.”
That reminded me of my favorite Stephen R. Covey’s story in his book The Seven Habits of Highly Effective people. He was on a subway early on a Sunday morning. Passengers were reading or sleeping or just lost in thought. Suddenly a man and his children entered the subway car and the peaceful morning dissolved. The man sat next to Stephen Covey apparently oblivious to his children who were yelling at each other, throwing things, and even grabbing people’s papers.
Covey reports, “It was difficult not to feel irritated. I could not believe that he would be so insensitive as to let his children run wild like that and do nothing about it, taking no responsibility at all. . . . So finally, with what I felt was unusual patience and restraint, I turned to him and said, ‘Sir, your children are really disturbing a lot of people. I wonder if you couldn’t control them a little more?’
“The man lifted his gaze as if to come to a consciousness of the situation for the first time and said softly, ‘Oh, you’re right. I guess I should do something about it. We just came from the hospital where their mother died about an hour ago. I don’t know what to think , and I guess they don’t know how to handle it either.'”
Covey says, “My paradigm shifted. Suddenly I saw things differently and because I saw differently, I thought differently, I felt differently and I behaved differently. My irritation vanished. . . . Feelings of sympathy and compassion flowed freely. ‘Your wife just died? Oh, I’m so sorry! Can you tell me about it? What can I do to help?’ Everything changed in an instant.”
Life in 2017 is full of anxiety, concern, and even suspicion. I wonder how much easier it would be if we stopped assuming we know why someone acts the way he or she does? What if we didn’t just react to a person’s facial expression or action or words? What if we knew more about what is going on in their life right now? Would we feel the same way if we knew what they were going through?
What if, like Fluffy and Steven R. Covey, we just asked a question? Let’s experiment! Rather than just assuming the worst about people, let’s try getting to know them, if only for a moment or two. Why did that teen-ager push her way ahead of me in line? Why is that guy scowling at me – or is his scowl even about me? Why is that woman just standing in my way in the sidewalk? What if I just smiled and asked a question? Maybe, “How’s your day going?” or “Is there something I can do to help?” would “change everything in an instant.”