I figured out something helpful to add to my bag of communicative tricks during today’s commute to work.

For some reason, the rush hour crowd on the Skytrain didn’t ease up (as it normally would) by the time I arrived at the station today. Had to let 2 trains pass by before squeezing myself into the head car of the 3rd train. Needed to be proactive and firm about getting on: there was a woman by the door reluctant to move because her much coveted position allowed her to lean restfully against a divider and read of one those badly written free newspapers. While I could understand her reluctance, I was not sympathetic enough to allow her to block passengers coming on board.

As I Jedi-mind-tricked her into the centre of the train, she scanned the train quickly to see how else she could stand so that she could still read. I wanted to say to her things like: “Don’t stand by the door unless you’re willing to get in and out of the train to aid the flow of passengers” and “You shouldn’t expect to read comfortably on a crowded train.” Eventually, she gave up her right to be filled with bad writing and got distracted by a baby in a stroller next to her.

I didn’t say those things to her because I’m pretty sure she wouldn’t take them very well, and really, there was no need. I know I wouldn’t like it if some stranger told me what not to do. In general, people don’t like to have restrictive commands imposed on them. We get reactive, defensive, and feel disrespected or infringed on. So I figured out a more constructive way of framing choices that bear negative consequences.

Rather than say, “Don’t do X, if you don’t want Y” or “You shouldn’t do X, due to Y,” it’s more dignifying and face-saving to reframe them into permissive statements qualified by a logical statement of cost involved. With the woman I displaced this morning, it is more helpful to say (if the necessity arose), “You could stand at the door because it’s convenient, but you’ll need to be prepared to put up with people bumping into you as they come in and out.” This is more gracious than the terse, blaming “Don’t stand at the door if you don’t want to be bumped around.” Mind you, such a rhetorical strategy works best in situations where neither life nor death are stake, so I’m not saying there isn’t a place for statements of ‘don’t’ (e.g. in th ER, the sinking of the Titanic, or the issue of the Ten Commandments).

Some of this stuff reminds me of the Educational Psychology course I took years ago at SFU, before I got derailed from my plans to be a teacher. Sometimes, I wonder if I should have gone into Linguistics instead.

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