This morning, the Big Girl and I had a familiar tussle, about when to leave for school. The Big Girl doesn’t just want to be on time, she wants to be early. As early as possible. And while I’m always anxious to be prompt myself, I don’t fancy standing outside her school for twenty minutes each morning, waiting for the door to open.
This morning she launched into the full works, “You don’t care if I’m late,” “We have to leave now,” etc. I pointed out that leaving at 7:40 am would mean we’d be standing outside in the pouring rain for fifteen minutes, with the Little Girl unhappily trying to bat her way out from under her stroller’s plastic rain cover. “I don’t care!” the Big Girl answered. “Can’t we just go?”
This kind of talk continued even as we walked to school (still on track to be at least ten minutes early), and I had to work very hard to keep a lid on my temper.
Then, at the corner of 87th and Park Avenue, I ran into someone I know from Kansas City. She was a few years behind me in school, but my school was so small that everyone knew everyone, more or less.
I see her around from time to time—we must live in the same neighborhood—but somehow, we’ve never spoken. Whenever I’ve spotted her, she’s been climbing into a cab, or having an intense conversation with a friend, or somehow preoccupied.
But this morning we came face to face. She was extremely friendly, “Hi, Gretchen! It’s Jane!” (not her real name).
I said hello politely, but after just a moment of chatting, said, “I’m sorry, we really need to run ahead. We’re going to be late.” I knew that every minute we stood talking was agony for the Big Girl. Completely irrational agony, but agony nonetheless.
Plus I just couldn’t manage the transition from attempted-patient-listening-to-a-crabby-kid to cheery-friendly-greeting-of-someone-from-home.
But I feel terrible, because Jane must think that I’m either very unfriendly or have some kind of grudge against her. I wasn’t rude, but I wasn’t appropriately friendly—and I wanted to be friendly, I feel very friendly towards her, and would have loved to catch up.
I tried to put on a face that signaled that I was caught up in some child-drama, but I fear that the rain, the kids’ umbrellas bobbing in our faces, and the surprise of the encounter obscured my somewhat subtle message.
The fundamental attribution error identifies our tendency to explain people’s behavior in terms of their character, abilities, intelligence, motives, etc., while overlooking the way that their situation may have influenced their actions. In other words, we over-emphasize the role that personality plays in shaping others’ behavior, while under-emphasizing the role of outside forces.
For example, you think that a co-worker ignored you because he’s rude and arrogant, but in fact, he wasn’t wearing his glasses so couldn’t make out your face.
Jane might make that kind of mistake about me. She might well imagine that I acted in a certain way because I was obnoxious, when in fact, my response to her was shaped by the situation with the Big Girl.
That’s why it’s important to keep in mind one of Life’s True Rules: Always cut people slack.