It’s easy to remain calm when everything is going well. But it’s more important to remain calm when everything isn’t going so well.
One way I’m lucky is that I have friends and family members who disagree with me about important issues. It makes me take a second look at my beliefs. It helps me see outside my own worldview to identify what I know for sure, what is less sure, and what is just a matter of subjective interpretation.
Most important, it inoculates me against the delusion that mine is the only possible way to see the world.
But none of that could happen without calm, rational discussion. And calm, rational discussion isn’t possible in an atmosphere of screaming, hatred, and mutual vilification.
Discussion is easiest among people who have a lot in common. They make the same basic assumptions. They make the same kinds of arguments. For biological as well as cultural reasons, they tend to trust each other’s good intentions.
Every major difference between social groups can hinder such discussion and is a potential source of conflict.
For example, when I was once between jobs in Washington DC, I worked as a contractor in Amtrak’s IT (information technology) Department. The U.S. government founded Amtrak in 1971 to provide subsidized train service. The “Am” is for “American,” so almost everyone else who worked in the IT Department was from India.
Our communication problems were minor but illuminating:
- I learned that when someone shook his head horizontally, it meant the opposite of what I expected: instead of “no,” it meant “yes.”
- It took me a week to figure out that when one of the project managers said “jeddo,” he meant “zero.”
- And when I commented in a meeting that someone was “preaching to the choir,” nobody knew what I meant. It was an American idiom they hadn’t learned in school. Fortunately, everyone remained calm. I explained it, and we got on with our work.
But think about it. Those disconnects were trivial and obvious. What about more important disconnects that are difficult to spot? They might be basic assumptions about life, goodness, truth, or human nature. Before people even understand what they’re arguing about, they often start shooting at each other.
Sadly, a minority of people are so full of anger and aggression that they can’t see the world clearly and they don’t want to. It’s not so much that they’re absolutely convinced of their own righteousness — although they are. Mainly, they’ll latch onto any paper-thin excuse to oppress, harm, or humiliate other people. I wish it weren’t so, but it is.
Happily, most people aren’t like that. They can resolve social disputes peacefully and with relative good will on all sides. But staying calm — and therefore rational — is the essential first step.
After my original parents broke up, my mother at one point dated a Mafia don who gave me some good advice. It sounded like Machiavelli by way of Al Capone:
“Always be nice,” he said, “until it’s time not to be nice.”
Even in the Mafia, it’s better to resolve things calmly and reasonably whenever possible. If they can do it, we can do it.
Remain calm, especially if all isn’t well.
Check out my new book Why Sane People Believe Crazy Things: How Belief Can Help or Hurt Social Peace. Foreword Reviews called it “intriguing and vital for living.”