But we might learn a thing or two from rock band Van Halen. No, hold the air guitar, this isn’t about their music. The reference is to the story about the band’s rider, or list of requirements, for all their concert venues. One of the stipulations was for a bowl of M&M sweets — but definitely NO BROWN ONES. When the band arrived at a gig, the first thing they would do is check the candy bowl.
What’s this? An example of superstar pickiness taken to extremes? Or an arcane drug code? Or just an addiction to candy — and hey, we all have our favourites. Who wouldn’t demand only the black wine gums, or stipulate no coffee creams, thank you very much?
But no. The point of this practice was to ensure safety. With the band’s complex equipment and experience of accidents, they wanted to ensure that setting-up procedures were followed to the letter.
And if the bowl of sweets was missing, or if it contained brown ones, this was an indication that other, more vital instructions may have been ignored.
I love this reminder that little things matter. Not in an obsessive, can’t sleep if all the boxes haven’t been ticked kind of way, but in the way which makes us realise that our behaviour in one situation is likely to be seen as an indication of how we behave in all circumstances.
Carelessness in communication suggests there might be carelessness in other areas. When someone misspells our name, we may feel a little put out, but more significantly, we may wonder, if they got the name wrong, what else might they get wrong?
Mistakes in signs in shops and public places are irritating and sometimes amusing, but they may also be seen as showing an element of disdain for the public.
The greatest of these is clarity
When someone doesn’t bother to check the clarity of the message, or the spelling or punctuation, it demonstrates a lack of concern for getting things right, and a lack of awareness that there are people to whom these things do matter, a little bit. So your attitude to the institution with the offending notice shifts slightly.
Our behaviour sends a message, whether we intend it to or not, and we are particularly sensitive to incidents which may affect our own situation.
- Your boss is being snappy with an assistant, or is being sarcastic towards a waiter.
- You think: They could be like that with me.
- You decide: This person is nasty to people they consider to be inferior or easy game.
- Your pal tells you a secret which they had promised to keep to themselves.
- You think: How do I know that you won’t pass on things I have told you in confidence?
- You decide: This person is untrustworthy and doesn’t value friendship.
- One of your friendship group tells a funny and inaccurate story about one of the group.
- You think: The next story might be about me.
- You decide: This person will sacrifice anyone for the sake of getting an audience and a laugh.
Of course, your response might be spot-on and justified. But it might not. We all have our off moments and we all make mistakes. We can be uncharacteristically bad-tempered or less than gracious for a number of reasons. We behave in ways which we know, or at least like to think, don’t reflect what we are really like. It’s bad luck, and yes, unfair, when we are judged on a careless comment, or a reaction caused by tiredness or inattention.
Cracking the circle of false perception
There are some ways of breaking this circle of false perception.
- We can cut each other some slack. After all, none of us would like to be identified by our most ignoble moments.
- We can hold back from jumping to conclusions. One action or incident need not colour our whole perception of a person.
- We can look for evidence in a wider context. Be aware of how the person usually speaks and behaves. Observe their body language and their tone of voice.
- We can manage our own behaviour by thinking of the effect it may have. With some application of self-control and self-awareness, we need not rush into words and actions which cause us to be seen in an unfavourable light or which create a false impression of who we really are.
It’s about paying attention to what is required. Just as the stage crew’s attitude to a seemingly trivial requirement sent a significant message, so our attention to the way our behaviour is seen and the impact it has on others can shape the message we send, and ensure that it is congruous with our real selves.
And let’s hope that people will forgive our slip ups, just as we will be understanding about theirs.
Not in a sweets-related situation, though. There are times when you really do need to ditch the brown M&Ms.
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