Tell Me About It: Can we really go through life without upsetting anyone?
I’m worried I ruined a stranger’s date night. I was at the cinema one evening for a film I had been looking forward to seeing for months. There was a young couple sitting next to me in the fairly packed screening. They seemed very happy and chatted at full volume throughout all the trailers ahead of the feature. When the standard “quiet down” notice came on the young woman pulled out her phone, I thought to turn it off. Instead, she started a Google image search of an actor they were trying to remember. As the film classification card flashed on the screen, I leant towards them and said, “maybe you can do the search after the film”?
My comment had an immediate impact. I don’t think the boyfriend heard me as he seemed confused as his girlfriend snatched her phone back into her bag and curled into him, as the opening credits came on. For the next two hours and 20 minutes, she seemed really upset and unfocused on Cate Blanchett’s travails, mostly playing with her hair and fidgeting. The moment the end credits came she turned her back to me, flipped a hood up and had a low-volume frantic conversation with her boyfriend.
They rushed to exit the cinema, but as they did, I reached out to her and asked “is everything all right?” She shook herself off and pushed on out of the aisle as her boyfriend made the L shape with his hand at me.
I feel terrible that I seemed to have had such an overwhelming negative effect on someone’s night out. I’d never have thought that I’d be the old biddy shaming people, I but I guess I am.
The issue is not that you caused “shame” or imposed it on someone else, it was reasonable to ask the woman to put away her phone and it seems that the young woman had her own issues and reacted in a way that seems way beyond what the situation called for.
You, however, are troubled by the incident and are struggling to let go the idea that you were the cause of the couple’s upset. I wonder if there are some old socialisation effects here, eg the idea that women (as you used the word old biddy, I am assuming you are a woman) are responsible for keeping the peace and making sure that everyone is getting on together. That you were so uncomfortable afterwards suggests that you suffer when others are upset by your actions, and this leads you to turn to yourself for the cause and not to the others involved. If you have an ingrained idea that you should never upset anyone perhaps it’s now time to challenge it.
Can we really go through life without upsetting anyone?
Is it not true that some people need to be challenged for their own and the common good?
Had you not asked for the phone to be turned off, then you and others sitting nearby would have been irritated and annoyed during the film, so there is really no outcome that might have left you feeling good. The question is whether it was the right and civic thing to do, to ask politely to turn off the phone, or should you smother your instincts and stay quiet for fear that others will take offence. This is not a clear black and white thing as there will always be times when it is right to stay quiet, eg when the other person does not have the capacity to be compliant, and in those situations, we need to take that into account. However, when we speak appropriately and yet go away carrying others’ poor responses, there is work for us to do. It is important to spot what is going on: that our discomfort is due to us taking on what is not our responsibility and not letting it go. Letting go involves clearly seeing the situation, tolerating our own discomfort, and focusing our minds on what is in front of us. If your mind keeps returning to the situation, you should ask if there is something for you to address and if not, keep dropping the self-commentary and focus your mind on something else.
Gradually the intensity of the emotion recedes, and you get freedom from the shame/guilt. It might be worth discussing (with friends) the possibility that your reaction is a result of culture or upbringing and what might be done about that. We can only change or tackle things as they become visible in front of us, and now is your chance to subject this topic to investigation and analysis.
After all, would you like it said at your funeral that you never upset anyone? Or would you prefer that it was said that you had the courage to speak when needed and the wisdom to know when to remain silent?