Unpleasant people are an unfortunate fact of life. They are not fun. They make us wince. They cause our stomachs to knot up. They sometimes try to generate conflict. But now and then we have to deal with these people. It’s crucial to be as congenial as you can be with them as well as with the sometimes-awful situations they can create. The importance of being pleasant was brought home to me following a particular gathering of a cooking club to which I belonged.
For some reason, I couldn’t go that night, which may have been a good thing. What happened became legendary to the club members. The club always cooked to a theme, and people would bring all the dishes, prepared, to the host’s home. The host or hostess always coordinated the dishes well ahead of time. This particular night, an hour into the meal, a notoriously late member of the group arrived. He had not said he wanted to come, and all the dishes were arranged for. This friend had brought some fresh seafood, which was irrelevant to the evening’s theme. The hostess, wanting to be…pleasant, let this friend come in and participate. One of the more expressive members asked why Mr. Seafood should be allowed to join the evening and asserted he should leave. Mr. Seafood prepared his dish in the hostess’s kitchen from scratch, while the group moved on to dessert, according to the original plan. In escalating tones, Mr. Expressive told Mr. Seafood that he should respect the group more and abide by the agreements: reserve ahead, prepare the dish in his own kitchen, and arrive on time, prepared. Other voices began to rise.
Most agreed with Mr. Expressive in principle, and they were tired of Mr. Seafood behaving as he does, and had done for years. However, they began to tell Mr. Expressive that it was best to be…pleasant. No one wanted outright strife. Then voices were raised on this point. Two people actually tried the seafood dish during desert. Raised voices turned to hurt feelings. One couple said it was simply unacceptable to air unpleasant thoughts like this at a social gathering. Mr. Expressive said, but he was right. [And I was in strong agreement with him, in principle, while different people were telling me later about the evening’s events.] Topping off the situation, the two who had tried the seafood dish got food poisoning from it. The outcome was that the group never met again. The stress of outright conflict was too uncomfortable for the group.
For a time, in an HOA situation, there was a neighbor who was especially critical of much of what went on with the community. She would send verbally violent emails to Board members and neighbors, wildly angry about the gate needing repairs or the dumpsters being too full. Online or in person, she would exclaim, “UNACCEPTABLE!!!!!!” Neighbors stopped responding to her emails, ignored her at Board meetings, and gradually steered away from her altogether. She lost all her social equity, all her influence in the community, and all of what could have been friendships with many fine neighbors. There is a level of blatant aggression and conflict that is simply too stressful for people, so they turn away.
The next time you find yourself with people expressing unpleasantly, be as pleasant as you can be, or remove yourself, if possible. Laugh and make light remarks. Be the one who breaks the tension if you have those skills. Even if you agree with the aggressor’s points, don’t join the tension, if you can avoid it. You can always talk with the aggressor later, after things have cooled off. To enjoy your relationships the most, smile and be easygoing. You’re the one who will be invited back.
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