I really tried to make my next chapter about an encounter someplace other than Trader Joe’s, but that store is just a goldmine. (See the last chapter for my theory of why that is.)
One morning last week, I got held up by a call from a client and arrived at TJ’s much later than I had planned. The store was very crowded and the lines for checkout were half way around the store. No problem with the lines. They move very quickly and are generally very well organized. On this morning, however, there was an e-anxiety victim acting out, talking aggressively on her cell phone. The volume was reasonable to begin with. I thought that she might turn out to be a normal person but, alas, it was just a ploy. She was sucking the rest of us in by pretending to be considerate. Once she had us lulled into a false sense of security, her voice began increasing in volume. As various people in line turned to look at her (to let her know that she was annoying them), she responded with Rule Number One for e-abuse: When challenged escalate obnoxiousness. Soon she was full volume and her pitch had risen to an annoying shrill. I was feeling profound gratitude that I was in an adjacent line and not in line ahead of her, when I looked at the women trapped directly in front of her. She look back with desperation in her eyes and said, “She keeps getting louder.” I heard myself respond, “She’s a talking bobble-head doll.” The woman smiled, and so did almost everyone around us. That’s when I noticed that most of the tension had left my body. I scanned the space around me and perceived that the tension had left the air around me. Deflecting negativity with humor — it really works. Now I admit that there was hostile component to my remark. But discharge from a barb doesn’t generally reduce tension for more than a few minutes. Despite my annoyance, I had delivered the line with a bit of a patient-parent tone and not through clenched teeth. People around me smiled. They didn’t shake there heads in hostile agreement.
As the line I was in moved into a different aisle from the e-perpetrator, I continued to scan the energy in that part of the store. It remained clear, despite the fact that the e-perpetrator was still talking audibly. Her behavior hadn’t changed. It was the way that people around her connected to her negative discharge that had changed. That’s when I arrived at an interesting thought. I had been standing in line feeling angry about having to be tortured by the perpetrator and feeling a little guilty because I couldn’t manage my emotions better. It now occurred to me that part of my discomfort was empathic. The collective discomfort of all of us around the e-perpetrator had fed each of our individual reactions, intensifying the annoyance. Once someone had altered the collective mindset by injecting humor, there was no longer a matrix to hold the negative reaction. The collective annoyance had turned to collective amusement. The vibrations sent out by the e-perpetrator hadn’t changed but they were no longer creating corresponding vibrations in the surrounding atmosphere. It was a lot to think about. At this point, I arrived at the front of my line and was directed to a checkout station. Within minutes, I left the store, happier AND wiser. A question lingered. What had happened within the e-perpetrator? Had the change in reception, altered her underlying anxiety? Was she aware that her actions no longer had the same effect? If a tree falls in the forest does it make the sound of one hand clapping?