Monday, May 01, 2006

Having a bad day? Trait vs. State

I recently presented a workshop on "Conflict Resolution" at the NJ Library Association conference and I have been thinking more about the idea of "state vs. trait" and the importance of being aware of how we interpret the behavior of others in library service encounters. Our judgments often depend on how well we know the other person.

If someone we know (and like or love) is rude or cold to us on any given day, we are likely to think "He's just having a bad day," or "Something must be wrong with her today." In other words, we think that our friend is temporarily upset, in a bad mood, or in a bad state. We are able to give that person the benefit of the doubt and may even excuse their somewhat nasty behavior because we know that this is not their usual personality. Our first reaction is to become concerned and to ask "what's wrong?" or "what's going on with you today?"

If, however, we don't know someone at all (as is the case for most library service encounters) and this person is rude or cold to us, we are much more likely to think "What an awful person" or "What's their problem?" or even "What an expletive deleted!" We think that the person has a bad trait. We are unable to excuse their bad behavior since we assume that they are always like that. Our first reaction is to be offended. We may not be able to resist the urge to snap back with a tart retort and then conflict ensues.

For service excellence in libraries, if we are able to think of the grumpy, stressed, or otherwise annoying people we encounter as nice people possibly having a bad day or being temporarily stressed out, this would enable us to be more sympathetic. We could then perhaps respond by asking "What's wrong?" or "Can I help you, you seem upset today?" We could openly acknowledge that they seem stressed or upset, that we understand that they are a bit fragile today, and they may be in need of a little bit of TLC. If we can see argumentative or grouchy people as being in a bad state rather than having a nasty trait, and if we react to them in a more caring way, many potential conflicts can be averted or defused.

On the days when I am stressed or rushed or hungry and tired while running a bunch of errands, I would just love it if those I encounter at service desks could understand that I am usually quite lovable and kind. Yes, I am a bit grumpy and fragile today, but I am having a really bad day.

Just one.


At May 02, 2006 8:40 AM, Blogger Janie L. Hermann said...

As a front line librarian who often spends 70% or more of my time at work dealing directly with library customers (either on the reference desk, teaching classes or by providing programs) this post was really inspirational for me. I am a "people person" and love customer service, but some times the amount of it that I do in a week starts to get to me and I am sometimes in a "state" myself (especially after my 2 year old has been up all night teething).

I am usually quite successful in putting my own "state" aside, but some days it is difficult to put it aside when I encounter a so-called "problem patron". So, from now on, when I am tired and cranky myself and am assisting someone who is rude, grouchy or unpleasant I will reframe it just this way. In fact, I will be sharing this post (and in particular the quote below) with my colleagues at our next departmental meeting:

If we can see argumentative or grouchy people as being in a bad state rather than having a nasty trait, and if we react to them in a more caring way, many potential conflicts can be averted or defused.

At May 02, 2006 9:45 PM, Blogger Marie L. Radford said...


So glad you found this post inspirational! Please let me know what your colleagues have to say about this way to frame encounters with "problematic people."

At May 03, 2006 9:26 PM, Anonymous He's Dead Jim! said...

I am usually quite lovable and kind. Yes, I am a bit grumpy and fragile today, but I am having a really bad day.

At May 04, 2006 9:23 PM, Blogger Peter Bromberg said...

Hi Marie,

Your post got me thinking about an essay I just read in Finding Serenity: Anti-heroes, Lost Shepherds and Space Hookers in Joss Whedon's Firefly. The essay, "We're All Just Floating in Space", by Indiana University philosophy professor Lyle Zynda touches on Sartre's idea that "existence precedes essence." WAIT, DON'T TUNE OUT YET!

Sartre suggests that objects (or people or events) are basically neutral. They exist but have no essence. They are not inherently good or bad. Whatever value they have to us is a value conferred by us, upon them.

With that in mind, I'd like to agree that the 'rude' patron's rudeness is not a trait (they're not the embodiment of rudeness), but I'd like to go one step further and suggest that their rudeness is not their state either. Rather, rudeness is the judgment that we make about them or the "value that we confer" upon them. It's not only that another person might NOT judge the patron as rude. WE ourselves might not judge that patron as rude under different circumstances. Our judgment of their rudeness is intimately tied up with our own variable needs and expectations in that moment.

Here's a hypothetical example of how our own needs and emotional state can affect our perception and judgment of another: Let's say you're supposed to meet me for lunch. I'm really busy and overworked and stressed out, but I value our friendship so I make a lunch date with you for noon on Friday.

I'm at the restaurant at noon but you're not. Five minutes go by, then ten, then twenty. I'm sitting there getting angrier and angrier at your rudeness. My inner voice is saying, "Hey, I've got work to do. This is wasting my valuable time. Marie is so rude for being late!"

Now let's look at the same situation, except this time I bring my little book of
Firefly essays
with me. I just bought it off of Amazon and I'm dying to read it, but I've been so busy I haven't had a chance. I get to the restaurant at noon and you're not there. I crack the book. I'm hooked into the first essay. Five minutes go by. Now I'm starting to relax for the first time in weeks. Ten minutes go by. How nice to have some down time to read! Twenty minutes go my and you finally show up, "Pete, I'm sorry I'm late...." I interrupt, "Marie, no problem I was just enjoying this little book..."

So, in both cases YOUR behavior was exactly the same. Was it rude? When I was stressed and felt my time wasn't being valued I perceived and judged you as rude. When I enjoyed the downtime to relax and read I didn't perceive or judge you as rude...

It's the value that WE confer.

Can you tell I read way too much existentialism in college? As Steve Martin said, "I learned just enough philosophy to screw me up for the rest of my life."

At May 05, 2006 10:08 AM, Blogger Marie L. Radford said...

I enjoyed your comments. Makes me think of the story you have told my basic reference class of a friend who 10 yrs ago first thought having an answering machine was rude, then expected, and now considers it rude when someone doesn't have an answering machine.

Our perceptions of what is rude behavior thus changes from moment to moment and our internal state (in your example stressed or serene) colors our interpretation of the behavior of others too.

Point well taken.

At May 11, 2006 7:33 PM, Blogger zgirl said...

Sorry for the late comment, but I’ve been thinking about this post and remembering back to the time when I worked at a very busy circ desk. Janie mentions the “so called ‘problem patron’” in her comment, and I too had my share. I even had a few “regulars” - you know, the ones that make your blood pressure instantly rise when you see them enter the library. Marie says, “If we can see argumentative or grouchy people as being in a bad state rather than having a nasty trait, and if we react to them in a more caring way, many potential conflicts can be averted or defused.” I think this is a good strategy for the brief, everyday encounters and interactions with the occasional grouchy or problematic library patron. It’s those regular “problem patrons” that are a real challenge. I think it is definitely more difficult to use the “having a bad day” scenario with them, because I know from experience that it’s more than that. My experience has been that they are rude, grouchy, nasty, argumentative, etc. EVERY time they are in the library, and that it is most likely NOT just a bad day. What about these people???

Sometimes you have to dig deeper inside yourself, and Marie’s suggestion to “react to them in a more caring way” is key. The way I was able to dig deeper was by reading a book called Lovingkindness by Sharon Salzburg (recommended by a psych professor I had at the time). I got something out of it that helped me deal with some of the regular problem patrons: Try seeing them in a different light – whether it’s thinking of them as someone’s beloved parent, grandparent, friend, pet owner (or whatever works for you), and treating them as such. If that doesn’t work, then try thinking of them as vulnerable (like when they were an infant), or as someone who is ill or in pain, or has suffered a loss. If all else fails, make something up – give them your own back story that helps you be more patient and kind to them even while they are being problematic right in front of your face. I saw a quote on someone’s signature file a few days ago that I think simplifies what I’m trying to say: “Be kinder than necessary, for everyone you meet is fighting some kind of battle.”

At March 24, 2008 8:20 PM, Blogger Patrizia said...

Hi. I enjoyed reading your post.

Today somebody that doesn't know me left a comment on my blog assuming something about me, but is totally false and I quickly deleted it out of sheer disgust.

This of course has soured my day.


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