I was driving my 13 year old to school this morning and I may or may not have committed a minor traffic violation. Without going into too much detail, I allegedly made a left turn at a four way intersection at a time when I apparently was not supposed to make a left turn.
There was a woman in her car, stopped at a stop sign at this intersection who started honking and yelling at me as I made the left turn. I didn’t realize at first why she was yelling so when I cleared the intersection I stopped my car and rolled down my window. To say that the woman was unhappy with me was an understatement. Her window was rolled down as well. She was screaming quite loudly, waving her arms, and pointing out my apparent error. She was angry, really angry.
Once it sunk in that in this woman’s mind (and very possibly in reality) I had done something that had triggered this response I had to figure out how to respond. A few thoughts went through my head:
- My 13 year old was in the car with me and I wanted to set a positive example.
- If there was even a possibility that I had, in fact, screwed up I should take responsibility and apologize.
- It didn’t matter in that moment whether or not I felt like the woman’s reaction was out of proportion to the situation.
- It was not my place to judge that woman or her reaction to my error.
For a few seconds I sat there and just listened to her yell. Then, when she paused, I said, “I am sorry. I guess I wasn’t paying enough attention and I made a mistake. Thank you for letting me know.”
The moment the words, “I’m sorry” came out of my mouth the woman’s whole face changed. The anger disappeared. Then she looked confused for a moment. Then she gave a small nod, quietly said, “okay” and then she drove away. The whole interaction probably took less than 30 seconds.
My daughter and I were both quiet for a minute. Then my daughter said, “that woman was really mad at you.”
I replied, “yes, she was. But that’s okay. She was allowed to be angry at me.”
My daughter asked me, “did you make the mistake she said you made?”
“Maybe,” I said, “I’m not actually 100% sure. But I don’t really think it matters either way.”
“But she YELLED at you,” my daughter said.
“She was upset. Or, maybe she yelled because she thought I was going to yell back,” I responded.
In those moments, it was not about who was right and who was wrong. It was about how I thought I could best diffuse the situation; and I followed my gut instinct.
Just driving off did not seem like the right choice in this particular scenario. I did not feel at all threatened. I had (inadvertently) caused someone distress. Becoming defensive and yelling back would have only escalated the situation. As soon as I apologized and saw the woman’s face completely change I knew that I had made the right choice in this situation.
Sometimes, even when we suspect we bear at least some responsibility for a situation, but especially if we suspect we don’t- and especially if someone is screaming at us, there is a temptation to flee or to fight. If we can take a moment and take a step back, sometimes there is a third option. Accountability, Kindness, Forgiveness. I was completely sincere in everything I said to the woman but the look on her face suggested that she wasn’t expecting that response from me. She looked confused, shocked, and then having had her feelings validated, and without the need to continue to yell, she left.
I don’t know if I handled this situation correctly. Someone I shared this story with earlier today expressed concern that my safety may have been in jeopardy if the woman had possessed a weapon or been mentally unbalanced. Perhaps. But I also wonder how much power each of us have to diffuse a potentially negative or even violent situation if we can put our egos and fears aside and just treat each other like human beings.
It’s likely that when the woman got wherever she was going, she told somone this story. It’s likely, that the story started by pointing out something stupid I had done. But maybe, by choosing to apologize and be accountable, I was able to rewrite the ending of the story and she was able to choose forgiveness instead of carrying that anger around all day . All I know is that with so much judgement and negativity in the world right now, I didn’t want to add to it.
We are human. Sometimes we are the person making the illegal left turns. Sometimes we are the person who yells at the person who just screwed up. Today I decided to be the person who stopped, listened, apologized, took responsibility, forgave, and let go.