“I’m alright, you are not”

Once every ten days or so I take our laundry to the local do it yourself laundromat. Although I can’t say that this is a chore of preference, I have made it reasonably pleasurable by taking along a good book, or I do some breathing meditation. Some of my time there is spent just observing the different types of people who come and go, trying to guess their stories.

Sometimes the machines don’t work. You pump in the quarters and nothing happens, there is no hot water, or the bill changers don’t function. Sometimes two or more of the machines don’t seem to work. I got into the habit of putting an “out of order or “broken” note on the front of the machine or stuffing the coin slot with some paper – actions intended to save others the same frustrating experience.

One day, Carlos, the attendant who will do the laundry for you if you want the extra service, climbed out of basement to survey his upper level self-service kingdom. He sees the notes I have just put on two machines, tears them off and angrily demands to know who put them there. I tell him that I did, because they don’t work. He insists they do work. I insist they don’t. More heatedly, he insists they do. He tells me that I have no right to attach notes to the machines. He is getting very angry and moving closer to my face.

This was beginning to feel like some kind of macho acting out. I didn’t like it, but refused to be intimidated or back off. Let me add that Carlos is at least 25 years younger than I, powerfully built and has the scarred and wary face of a street fighter. Foolishly, these facts did not bother me at the moment. He comes closer, wags his finger within three inches of my nose and tells me I am looking for big trouble. I grab his finger away from my nose but he puts it there again. At this moment, the owner of the Laundromat enters the store, yells at Carlos that he can’t fight with the customers; and sends him sulking back to the basement. The owner asks me what happened, I tell him, but find myself sticking up for Carlos, telling the owner that the whole incident is a misunderstanding, even my fault.Instinctively, I knew there was another dimension to the failure of this encounter, but could not define it yet.

I left the Laundromat feeling very shaky and fearful. More importantly, I felt deeply disturbed by the intensity of Carlos’ anger, but refuse to write him off as an unpleasant disturbed person or crazy  punk, an opinion I might have once held. I needed to risk it and discover if there was a better way. The next day I screwed up my courage to pay Carlos a visit at the Laundromat. He sat there angrily sulking at me as I entered the store. I walked up to him and simply said,

“You and I shouldn’t fight. You and I should be friends.”

“What do you want from me,” he said.

“Nothing,” I answered. “But you and I should be friends.”

Carlos didn’t say anything, walked a few steps away from me and then came back with a slightly softer look on his face. I extended my hand, he looked me in the eye and shook it. We stood there quietly talking for several minutes before I left and went home to dinner.

This experience got me thinking about other failures of relationship, most of them in business and marriage. How some of them might have turned out differently and for the better but at the moment of confrontation they seemed impossible to repair.

The source of our conflict was due to what is known as the “fundamental attribution error,” a psychological response first coined by Lee Ross,The intuitive psychologist and his shortcomings: Distortions in the attribution process, in L. Berkowitz (Ed.), Advances in experimental social psychology (vol. 10. New York: Academic Press. 1977.

It means that we make positive judgments on the circumstances and motives surrounding our own actions; we give ourselves a pass, but attribute ill will or bad intentions to the actions of others; place little or no value on the circumstances surrounding the other’s actions. Put simply it means I’m alright, but you are not!  I have known countless CEOs and top staffers who practice the fundamental attribution error daily in their interactions and decisions.

Happily, it takes only one person initially to see the truth behind the rigid roles that Carlos and I were acting out, one person who will take the risk necessary to establish something more human, something more productive than the role playing we start out with.  Thank you, Carlos.

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