I’d like to share with you a game that helps me live the change I want to see in the world.
But first I’d like to let you in on a secret: when people are mean, cranky, or unpleasant, it is not necessarily about you. In fact, while you may be a contributing factor, people’s negativity generally has nothing to do with you. This is especially the case when you’re out in public (at work, in a store, using public transportation, etc.), but is also true in more personal situations (family, friends, loved ones).
Think about it: Have you ever been unpleasant to someone for reasons that had nothing to do with that person? Because you were tired for example, or stressed about work, or because someone else had just been unpleasant to you…and of course the recipient of your unpleasantness reacted as if it were in fact directed at them when it actually had everything to do with something completely unrelated. We’ve all been there.
So what is the Why Game (Grownup Edition)?
The Why Game is my small way of trying to be less negative while making the world a happier, more understanding place. This of course sounds like altruistic Hallmark-y malarkey (see what I did there), and it kind of is. But it is also selfish – by playing the Why Game, I avoid all kinds of disagreeable situations in which people get upset and I waste my time and energy either getting upset too or trying to calm everybody down. The game is based on one simple principle that I learned in middle school when a trained mediator came to our class to run a workshop (to explain, I was attending a Quaker school at the time). As an introspective awkward kid that was pretty close to the bottom of the popularity pyramid, I was open to learning anything I could about how to be better at social interactions. However, what I learned that day went far beyond the painful yet retrospectively ridiculous trivialities of middle school. I learned that anger is never the only nor the most important emotion, but is rather the symptom of something else. In order to address the real problem, you should always ask why someone is displaying anger rather than accepting it at face value.
You know that adorable yet ultimately frustrating game that young children play where they ask you a question and you give what you think is a balanced and thoughtful response…and they respond with “why?” You think about it, and give another thorough response. “Why?” And so on and so forth until most of us, after a number of iterations that depends on a combination of sleep, hunger, and general energy levels, simply finish with “because I said so” as the be-all, end-all answer? I find that it is really useful to play a similar game when confronted with unpleasant people or situations (even if you have to invent the answers).
Let me explain. Let’s say that my generally wonderful significant other snaps at me for coming home late after a dance rehearsal. I’m exhausted, frustrated by my performance during the rehearsal and I haven’t eaten in far too long. I want to respond with something barbed and snarky because I do not have time for his attitude right now. But instead I make a neutral sound acknowledging his comment and go to the other room to change, taking the time to slow down and play the Why Game.
Why would he say that? I told him that I wasn’t sure when the rehearsal would finish and that I might be home late.
Because he’s a jerk and he hates me.
Ok, let’s be serious. Why would he say that?
Because he doesn’t like it when I get home late.
And then a multitude of reasons flow into my head. He had a long and frustrating day at work, then he had to do the dishes, tidy the apartment and take out the trash alone when he got home because I wasn’t there to help. He just had key person drop out of an important project and he needs someone to talk to in order to figure out what to do next. He always gets kind of negative when he’s hungry, and he waited for me to get home before eating.
So what is the real problem here? He is angry because I got home late? Not at all. He is tired, cranky, and frustrated with a flaky acquaintance; he probably could benefit from a supportive presence and some food. So instead of reacting to his tone and taking what he said at face value, I take a deep breath, pull him into the kitchen to cook dinner together and ask him to tell me about his day.
“But Kai,” you might be thinking, “playing the Why Game with a significant other is easy. When you live with someone and love them of course you understand them.” This is true. But understanding why someone acts a certain way, immediately or after the fact, doesn’t necessarily preclude responding in the heat of the moment with equal negative energy. And for anyone who thinks that keeping your calm is easier with people you love:
Nevertheless, the argument that it is easier to understand people you love than it is to understand strangers is valid. What about everyday situations with people you don’t know as well? What about when your boss is unnecessarily critical, or when the cashier glares at you wordlessly while ringing you up, or when some guy starts going in on you because you “pushed” him on the bus? You don’t have a detailed understanding of their internal processing systems and you have zero context for what kind of day they’re having. So what do you do? You create your own reasons.
Let’s take the last example of the unpleasant man on the bus.
You’re on your way home from work and the bus is pretty packed and someone nudges you from behind as you’re getting on, causing you to nudge the guy in front of you. He takes this as personally as if you had made a disparaging comment about his mother and starts lecturing you about manners. You:
a) Inform him loudly and in no uncertain terms that you do not appreciate his lecture and that as a matter of fact you know quite a lot about good manners and that maybe he should question his own conduct before throwing stones in a glass house. (Go to option 1)
b) Fold your arms, firmly plant your feet (as best you can in a crowded bus) and give him the Glare of Death. (Go to option 2)
c) Punch him in the face. (Go to option 3)
d) Tune out his rant and play the Why Game. (Go to option 4)
Have you made your decision?
Option 1: He responds in a similar manner, things escalate, you both create a scene reminiscent of two toddlers throwing a tantrum and everyone around you feels awkward and embarrassed that adults would comport themselves in such a way, in public no less. Nothing is accomplished, you’ve lost your faith in humanity, you get off the bus two stops later still seething, you yell at your dog and insult your fish and are in a bad mood for the rest of the evening.
Option 2: He finishes his rant, folds his arms and glares back at you while you silently fume and think of all of the ways you could ruin his life. Nothing is accomplished, you’ve lost your faith in humanity, you get off the bus two stops later still seething, you yell at your dog and insult your fish and are in a bad mood for the rest of the evening.
Option 3: Seriously?
Option 4: Now that you’re not really paying attention to what he’s saying, you’re free to play the Why Game. Why is he so upset?
Because he’s an immutable assh*le who wants to watch the world burn. And he doesn’t like me, my face, or where I’m from.
Okayyy…possible but unlikely. Try again. Why is he so upset?
Because he loves watching My Little Pony during his lunch break but Youtube was blocked from his work computer today and this has basically ruined his entire week/life.
Because he is an alien from another planet whose sole weak point is a spot on his back, approximately 2cm from where you nudged him and he is now worried that he has been discovered and is trying to cover up the situation.
OR (and potentially more realistic)
He has been pushed every single time someone gets on the bus and has been on the bus since the beginning of the line. Someone gave him a moral lecture about personal space a few stops ago, he’s had a long day and your inadvertent nudge pushed him over the edge. It could’ve been anyone, or anything, but his reaction has nothing at all to do with you.
Now, whether you’ve decided he’s a Brony, a martian or just a regular guy having a tough day, escalation is no longer an option. Any of these potential story lines allows you to calmly look him in the eye, smile and apologize. And all of a sudden he might realize that he’s overreacting, he might apologize as well, and everyone goes home with a little more faith in humanity. Or he might just harrumph at you and turn around. But either way, you know that what happened wasn’t about you and that you took the higher ground.
You get off two stops later, hug your dog, sing to your fish and have a lovely evening.
And that, my friends, is the Why Game.
If you’re like me and dream of a world with less negative energy and more mutual understanding I invite you to live this dream by playing the Why Game. It’s not easy to keep your emotions under control, especially when you have your own personal context to take into account. But I promise that by at least slowing down your reaction time you will give your brain a chance to reflect for a second instead of immediately ceding to your natural desire to lash out.
We aren’t toddlers anymore guys, we can’t throw tantrums. But we can ask why.