Why is everyone so crabby?

August 19, 1999|By KATE COLEMAN

he traffic light turns green. In the nanosecond before you have a chance to take your foot off the brake and move it to the gas pedal, the guy in the car behind you is leaning on the horn, leaning on the horn, leaning on the horn, leaning on the horn.

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You were having a good day. Now you're yelling at this jerk. You're crabby. The honker is crabby. Everybody's crabby. Why?

"People are more disconnected from each other," is one reason cited by Jim Cannon, coordinator of business and industry training programs at Hagerstown Community College. We have voice mail, we have e-mail, he points out. People can chat via computer. Sometimes you can get through a whole day without any human interaction.

In the "old days," people knew everybody in their community, Cannon says. Years ago you wouldn't dream of screaming at someone in the car behind you because you knew them, Cannon says.


"Dis-connectedness" is one of 10 trends cited by author C. Leslie Charles in her book, "Why Is Everyone So Cranky: How to Strengthen Your Emotional Immune System and Thrive in the Midst of Today's Anger Epidemic," which will be available in October.

Charles calls staying connected - with our communities, as well as with our loved ones - key in "quelling the anger epidemic." She believes that it's still possible. Look at how people respond when there's a natural disaster or a tragedy, she suggests.

The pace of our culture is another reason for people's grumpiness. We are overwhelmed, overworked, overscheduled and overspent, says Charles, a professional speaker and trainer based in East Lansing, Mich.

Charles discusses "The Expectation Machine," people striving for the fantasy of "The Perfect Life."

"We're all so driven," Cannon says.

Earlier this summer, Cannon found himself driving down the highway in a heavy rainstorm. It occurred to him that everyone, including him, was driving 70 mph in a hard rain.

"What are we doing here?" he asks.

Time is money, Cannon says. Crabbiness relates to people's general stress level, he believes.

"I think moods are contagious," says Deryl Fleming, director of pastoral counseling services at Brook Lane Health Services in Hagerstown. "Be cranky to me. I'll be cranky to you," is a common reaction.

"Everybody's experiencing it," Fleming says. "Dealing with Difficult People: Strategies for Relating to People Who May Make Your Life Miserable" is one of the free community programs that Brook Lane offers in the fall and spring. Fleming usually conducts the program and says the "house is packed." He did the program for a conference of bankers. His audience told him that in the "old days" they would encounter about one difficult person a month. Now they deal with several every week.

What's going on?

When people are crabby, Fleming figures that they have suffered a loss. They have lost something or someone that mattered to them. People who are cranky are disappointed with life, Fleming believes. They haven't been given what they thought they deserved.

What can you do about it? How can you handle crabby people without catching the bad feeling yourself?

Do whatever you can do not to return the favor, Fleming advises. Move away from them. Stay away from them, he says.

From a spiritual perspective, Fleming recommends keeping your soul well fed and keeping yourself focused and self-defined so that you won't return the crankiness.

In customer training at Citicorp Credit Services, employees are taught to put themselves in the customer's shoes and stay there for a few minutes, says Donna Kelly, the company's site training manager in Hagerstown.

The vast majority of customers is seeking information, she says. It helps employees understand why the customer is reacting the way he or she is. It goes a long way to diffuse a situation, Kelly says.

This approach is something people work for at home with their families, but it's also important to remember it in business situations, according to Kelly.

"I encourage people to create their own code of conduct," Charles says. She recommends that they make lists of what they will and will not do.

For example, "I will remember that my customers come first."

But what if a customer is way out of line - abusive or foul-mouthed or out of control?

Know ahead of time how much is too much, Charles advises. Talk to your manager about how such a situation should be handled.

What about outside the workplace?

Charles' advice applies anywhere:

* Develop a "Teflon temperament," she recommends. How other people behave makes a statement about them - not you. You can't control anyone else's behavior. You can only control your own, she adds.

* Ask yourself, "Just whose problem is this? Just how important is this? Will getting upset change anything?"

* Don't take it with you, advises Charles. Let it go. Why let a 30-second transaction ruin your day?

* Charles recommends deep breathing and smiling even when you don't feel like it. It can make you feel better.

* Do a good deed daily is another of Charles' strategies for helping others feel better and to feel better yourself. "It works," she says.

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