“You seriously have no idea what people are dealing with in their personal life so just be nice, it’s that simple.” – Unknown
I was out to eat at a restaurant once, trying to enjoy my meal, when I noticed that my server was being relentlessly berated by a neighboring table. Nothing she did was right; the food was wrong, the drinks were wrong – everything she did elicited some sort of complaint. The customer was just acting downright nasty to her at every turn.
Yet, in spite of this, she responded with a smile and a cheerful attitude every time.
Towards the end of the meal I was growing tired of this customer’s tireless ranting, but she was still smiling and helpful. At the end of the meal, she even offered the customer free dessert. That she claimed to pay for out of her own pocket. I didn’t understand it, and after the irate customer finally left, I called her over to my table.
“How do you do it?” I asked. “That customer was horrible to you, but you never once flinched or responded to his attitude negatively. How do you remain so kind in the face of such vitriol?”
She stopped for a second, almost as if it had never occurred to her that her behavior was extraordinary.
“I don’t know,” she said. “I guess I don’t really know what’s happening in another person’s life to make them so miserable. He could have just lost his wife or his mother, or maybe he is worried about losing his job or paying his mortgage. Usually if someone is mean like that, it’s because there is something in their lives that is causing it, and it’s probably something bad. I just feel like responding negatively will only make it worse. I try to treat everyone with kindness, because it’s the right thing to do.”
I was floored by her response. It made so much sense and yet it is something we so rarely do in our own lives.
It’s almost in our nature to respond to negativity with negativity. If someone is nasty to you, it can be really difficult to not be nasty back. But I had never stopped to think about the fact that something made that person act the way they are acting. Something that has nothing to do with me. By responding with negativity, I only breed more negativity.
I’ve committed to living a more positive and inspirational life. But before that day with the server, I never thought about how much my reactions to other people’s negativity played into that. The reaction is so instinctual that I never even realized I was doing it. I started paying attention to how I reacted to the negativity coming from the people around me and I realized how much I was letting other people’s attitudes affect me.
I overheard a woman complaining incessantly at the diner and spent the next thirty minutes in negative thought myself.
The woman in line in front of me at the grocery store was nasty to the cashier, and my body tensed up and I became irritable.
Someone cut me off in traffic and I muttered under my breath about what a jerk they were.
A man pushed past me angrily at Starbucks because I was in his way at the creamer station and I wanted to push him back.
I was absorbing and reflecting the negative energy of others without even thinking about it and that energy was building up inside of me throughout the day, hurting my goal of becoming a more positive person.
Once I started paying attention to how the behavior of others was affecting me, I realized I needed to change my reactions. Not for their sake, but for my own sake. I could not reduce the negative energy in my life without doing this. So, I took a page from that server’s playbook and I started to try to imagine what the other person might be going through to make them the way that they were.
Maybe the old lady who constantly complained at the diner grew up in a home where she was yelled at constantly.
Maybe the woman at the grocery store had a sick child at home and no help from her husband or her family.
Maybe the guy in traffic had a big meeting to go to that he was nervous about and he didn’t realize he cut me off.
Maybe the guy at Starbucks just got in a big fight with his wife before leaving for work for the day.
It didn’t matter to me if I was right, the point was that I started to try and see the negative people that came across my path in a more positive light. I needed to react with empathy in order to maintain my goals of positivity.
After a few weeks of actively trying to practice seeing others in a more empathetic light, I began to see positive change in my own life. I was less tired at the end of the day, and I had less negative interactions with people. It was a simple exercise, a tiny tweak in the way I viewed the world that made a huge difference in my attitude and life overall.
And maybe, just maybe, I was making a difference in someone else’s life too.