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How Not to Handle Conflict
It’s amazing some of the things you see when you are working in the corner of a restaurant. Sit in the same seat behind a laptop long enough and you practically become invisible. Most of what you find, of course, is a lot of normal things, an endless variety of people, a range of average conversations. But you occasionally get the odd character, the funny discussion, the bizarre interaction. I’ve seen big spills and broken machines, ceilings that leaked and bathrooms that flooded, shouting matches and fist fights, young lovers showing a little too much affection and a girl breaking up with her boyfriend over the phone, friends telling each other about drugs and a homeless man talking to himself. I once saw a high school kid skipping school get shoved against a table and arrested by police for stealing a bike.
The other day I was in my usual corner on the covered patio of a local restaurant. A female nurse in scrubs walked out. Middle-aged, dark hair in a pony-tail, with an older man, just like me and my father used to come to this same spot for lunch, and still do on occasion. Or maybe he was a mental patient, I don’t know. The way she led him around made it hard to tell. Regardless, they sat in the far booth, and I didn’t think more of it.
A little while later, this massive guy barged through the door. He looked like a past-his-prime pro wrestler who stopped doing steroids and started doing donuts. He was at least 6’5”, well over 300 lbs., bald head, thick chest, stubble in the shape of a goatee. I can only imagine all the tattoos under his jacket sleeves. He could have a great career as the bouncer for a dive bar frequented by biker gangs, except I don’t think we have many of those in Charlotte. Trailing a safe distance behind him was his relatively tiny teenage daughter, sobbing.
The wrestler stomped over to the table with the nurse and started yelling at her, demanding to know what the burse had done to her daughter while in the bathroom. The daughter had been traumatized, as evidenced by the crying, and the dad was not happy about it. He had already called the police. He leaned his bulk over the table, blocking any way out, and was shoving his finger in her face. The only other person on the patio, an elderly gentleman, and I were exchanging nervous looks. I honestly thought there might be an altercation. Who knew what lengths this father would go to defend his daughter’s honor?
The nurse explained that, while they were both in the bathroom, she had pointed to the sign recommending everyone wash their hands with soap and warm water for 20 seconds. I don’t know whether the girl had not washed her hands at all or had only washed with water or had only washed for 15 seconds instead of the full 20, since I wasn’t in the women’s restroom at the time, but it was apparently not sufficient for this particular healthcare worker, and the nurse had let the young woman know. As I said, she was traumatized.
“I just pointed out the sign; she should wash her hands!” the nurse objected, rather defensively. “That sign’s been there for 50 years; you’re a lunatic!” the wrestler answered. “I’m trying to save lives; this is a leading cause of death!” the nurse replied, no hint of sarcasm in her voice. They kept repeating the same accusations and answers back to each other in several rounds of increasing intensity. Neither was backing down.
At this point, I was thinking that I should probably say something, try to settle things down. I didn’t. Fortunately, the elderly gentleman did. “Clearly this is not going to be resolved,” he said, “so perhaps we should just all move on.” The wrestler did not want to hear it. He was not about to let it go. The woman had accosted his daughter, trapping her into the bathroom and forcing her to wash against her will. The police were on the way. They would hear about this…whatever it was. Crime? I don’t know. I’m not a lawyer.
Fortunately, the manager came and asked the wrestler to leave. He got a few more angry words in but ultimately left without coming to blows, only to stake out the front of the restaurant with his wife and daughter, waiting for the cops to come. I did see his wife talking to an officer later, but the nurse and her father/patient, after finishing their lunch, left out the back door before they could get any mugshots, so I guess this one will remain one of those great unsolved mysteries. The manager and I had a laugh about it afterward. Just another day in the office.
I’m tempted to write off the whole situation as what happens when two uniquely crazy people collide, and undoubtedly that is the case, but while I hesitate to use the rare occurrence to argue that the world is becoming crazier, I do think we can extract some value from this physical manifestation of a Twitter fight.
As this is a dad blog, ostensibly about dads, you might imagine I have a few thoughts about the dad. I do. First, though, a note about conflict. How does something like this happen? How does a strange comment in the bathroom end with a shouting match and the police being called? How does an simple political statement on social media end up in a flame war between people who have never met? How does an innocuous comment to your wife blow up into a heated exchange or a days-long spat? The reasons for the conflict are obviously varied and complicated, but what they all share is escalation. Something tips the ball just over the hill, and it tumbles downhill, picking up speed with each new offense. In the course of any conflict, there are always opportunities to slow the acceleration or divert it onto a safer path, but people are rarely able to overcome the inertia of their anger or self-righteousness. And if you don’t stop it early, it becomes unstoppable and smashes through whatever guardrails you then try to erect.
So I think a slight majority of the blame falls to the nurse in this conflict. Not only did she incite the conflict, she declined every opportunity to ameliorate it. Whatever initially happened in the bathroom, she could have made her request in a more polite, less threatening manner than was evidently the case, and she could have softened her stance when she saw that the young woman was upset. When confronted by the angry father, she could have apologized, saying she did not intend to cause any harm, said a kind word to the daughter, and let the whole thing go. Instead, she doubled down on her own righteousness, ludicrously insisting that she only wanted to save lives, implying the daughter (and the father) were a threat to the community.
This is how you escalate conflict. You can’t control what the crazy person on the street or the internet does, how they receive your well-intentioned comment or advice, whether they get angry or upset or yell or scream, but you can control how you respond in turn. A little grace and humility, being willing to take the blame even when you don’t deserve it, can go a long way toward deescalating a conflict. Maybe an apology wouldn’t have entirely ended the incident in this case, but it wouldn’t have hurt. At several points, the nurse could have made things better or at least tried to. She decided to make them worse.
That does not excuse the wrestler. As a dad, I almost understand him. Which of us would not do everything possible to protect our children, no matter how embarrassing or ridiculous or extreme it may look to others? He was a man. He saw his daughter in danger and sprang into action, as men do. He puffed up his chest, armed himself with righteous anger, and sallied forth to defend her. In a different context, we might even call it noble. There was just one problem: his daughter was not in the slightest danger. He thought he was protecting her honor. In fact, he was crushing her spirit.
I don’t care how rude or creepy someone is to you about washing your hands in a public restroom, breaking down into tears is not an acceptable response. As a normal, healthy teenager, you have two options: 1) Politely decline the request or ignore them altogether, leave the bathroom, and don’t think much of it. Tell your friends and family about the odd woman in the bathroom, if you like, but don’t let it ruin your day. 2) Suck up your pride and wash your hands again simply because they asked you to. It doesn’t hurt you to do so, addresses the other person’s concerns, and defuses the entire situation. Only a exceptionally strong, humble, disciplined, mature teen (or adult) would be likely to take the second option, but the ability to simply shrug off an uncomfortable situation is still a sign of strength and resilience. The fact that this teenage girl instead saw a rude, unnecessary request as an existential threat to her safety is an indication of an underlying weakness. The common term for it is fragility.
The instinct to protect our families is strong, and it is a wonderful gift when the real threats of life arise. But in protecting his daughter from a non-threat, this dad was teaching her, in the most dramatic fashion, that she should never have to deal with a minor discomfort, an awkward conversation, a rude comment, that she should run from any such situation or cry out to daddy for help. But if she never has to handle this kind of situation on her own, how will she ever learn to? It’s not as though these sorts of encounters are becoming less common. Dealing with a rude or embarrassing or outright crazy person, whether in real life or online, might just be the most essential skill a young person today can learn, and it’s the kind of skill you can only truly learn through experience. If you don’t let them learn it when the stakes are low and you are around to guide them through it, they will inevitably fail when the stakes are high and they’re on their own.
Don’t overprotect your kids. It only makes them weak. Give them the gift of awkwardness and discomfort and failure, which always comes with freedom and independence. Let them grow strong and mature. Don’t hide them under your own anger and insecurity. You’ll only make them fragile and yourself a fool for the effort. You may even end up as an example on some idiot’s blog. After all, you never know who might be watching, unnoticed, in the corner of the room.
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