Talking about Intolerance
You know the scenario: you’re busy holding it all together when someone who has the misfortune of being three feet away from you asks you a question and bang – you lose your rag. It might be as anodyne a question as whether you would like a digestive or a bourbon with your tea. It might be as innocent an enquiry as how to set up the photocopier but….BOOM! You drop your load with the timing of a donkey in a nativity play.
When we live or work with others, irritations and annoyances can and do build up. Quite often when we’re busy we haven’t got the time to be raising minor grievances with partners or colleagues. Indeed, a lot of us find it uncomfortable to mention things that annoy us to other people, whatever the cause of the irritation, so we keep stumm. (‘No-one likes a moaner’, we think to ourselves). Whether it’s your other half’s failure to tidy up the kitchen or your colleague’s crisp mastication which turns you from angelic to silently psychopathic, the resentment can simmer under the surface while you get on with the business of living.
Our British upper lips are pressurised bottle-stoppers which do a great job of keeping it a lid on it all. We are far too outwardly tolerant of our fellow citizens’ foibles. We often carry our bugbears with us, hiding them under social pleasantries and forced smiles so that we can avoid those difficult conversations. We tend to harbour the intolerances, ignoring those small grey puffs: the lack of thank yous, the failure to tidy up the socks drawer or the self-absorbed conversations that we pretend to listen to but don’t. We carry on, putting on our sunny day faces until the force ten gale erupts and the outlook on the relationship front becomes unsettled.
Work and life pressures also heighten our intolerance of others: some deadlines to meet, difficulties logging onto Amazon Prime and a phone call from the children’s nursery can have you snapping at an innocent colleague like a Jack Russell in a pigeon party. The modern world demands so much from us in terms of our attention and application that it is no wonder that the switch can flick at the most inconvenient times and we are left ranting at Shirley the temp for not having tidied the desk tidy.
It is in fact so easy to store things up and then lose your rag that most of us would have no problem successfully auditioning for Eastenders. The thing is, every time you tolerate some minor unpleasant behaviour in someone, your internal resistance is decreased.
For example, your colleague who sits at the desk next to you doesn’t say hello to you one morning, but even though this is uncharacteristic you let it go because you are carrying on with your filing. (Let’s face it, it takes more energy to make a fuss than find where Mr B’s probate documents need to go.) Your resistance is lowered.
Your colleague then leaves you with a pile of files to work on before nonchalantly exiting the building at 4pm. Your resistance is lowered.
Your colleague spends too much time schmoozing at lunch when you need him to cover you to go to Marks and Spencer’s to get an urgent pair of school trousers for your son. Your resistance is lowered. One morning your colleague has the gall to throw a screwed up piece of paper in your direction, miss the wastepaper basket and hit you in the face and boom! Your resistance crashes, your internal circuitry melts and you launch a tirade at your stunned colleague that only Kim Jong-un would be proud of.
We can get so offended by people’s blowouts. Sure, it’s upsetting when you’re on the receiving end of someone’s meltdown. However, we can and do take things far too personally when in fact nine times out of ten the problem is that of the other person. They either have not been able to express what is irritating them at some point before the meltdown or they have reached saturation point in terms of tolerance of the outside world and are taking it out on whoever happens to be in close proximity. Where their failure to communicate appropriately meets our taking the situation personally, there is conflict and discord.
Here’s a thing though. It’s OK not to have the patience of a saint with other human beings. This does not make us bad people. It makes us the imperfect glorified chimps that we are. It is also OK to feel upset by someone’s dysregulated emotional behaviour but hey – nobody is perfect and no-one is capable of behaving impeccably all of the time.
We as humans are terrified of talking about the small things. We are terrified of having open communication with someone as we worry about what they think of us or how they might react. We push down that fear and carry on. Half the time someone will not realise their perceived anti-social, annoying or selfish behaviour is affecting you until you say something. Yes: perhaps they should be more aware or socially conscious or nice or whatever. That may be the case but not everyone is the same. Everyone has different levels of social awareness and sometimes people are distracted with other things that are going on in their worlds, rightly or wrongly. If you tell your colleague that you are annoyed with them because they have stolen all the post-it notes again they will probably not have realised that that was an issue for you, and certainly not one which would have caused you any degree of internal existential suffering.
In my experience, relationships can only improve when people communicate about the small stuff. It increases openness. We fear the opposite: we fear conflict and divisiveness but it is precisely that fear of communication that drives the wedges and reinforces the resentments. Talking to someone carries some risk in terms of how they react. We cannot control that but at least we have kept our resistance from dropping to circuit-breaking levels by saying how it is for us. You never know: your silent post-it rage might be equally matched by their silent loathing of the way you slurp your coffee. Sharing our intolerances can only lead to increased intimacy with others as they then feel free to share their bugbears too. This strengthens and improves relationships as we are able to build trust and make authentic connections. After all, there is a reason why the people who say the most insulting things to one another are often the best of friends.
Copyright Ally Frazer 2019