This is because we do things out of habit… and, we have a tendency to unconsciously follow pre-scripted patterns of speech or behaviour.
I suppose the most common example is… “Good morning, how are you?” And, regardless of how we feel, we say… “Fine thank you”.
In Britain, when someone bumps into us, even though we’ve done nothing wrong, we say “I’m sorry”. Apparently the average Brit says “I’m sorry” 1.9 million times in our life time!
Following habitual scripts and patterns have consequences, some of them unhealthy.
Mary Gergen – who, I’ve met a handful of times, but whom I really admire – is reputed to have told this story…
“I was in a bar having a drink when I noticed a couple of chaps on their night out. The evening followed a well trodden script, at first they were well behaved, talking about sports. As the night wore on, they got a bit merrier and a bit louder. Playful banter turned to play fight. Before long, voices were raised and what started our as affectionate punches, became harder… words became nastier (mother’s and wives were mentioned) and a fight ensued. The bar tender called the police as people watched on…”
While feeling a little frightened, Mary knew that this was probably a scene that was playing out in every city, every where in the world. The consequence, if benign, could be that the friends would spend the night in jail and reconcile the next morning. In another scenario, one or both could have ended up seriously hurt.
In an effort to change the script, Mary decided to jump on to the bar and started tap dancing!
Very soon, eyes and attention turned to her. There was even clapping! Eventually the guys who were fighting also stopped to see what was happening!
Mary tells this story to illustrate how unconscious, habitual, pre-scripted patterns of behaviour can be altered with a bit of reflexivity. Perhaps more importantly consequences can be edited, in the moment, to produce different, potentially better social realities and identities. For example, Mary became a sort of a folk hero! The brawling men did not become branded as thugs or people with convictions, the bar did not get a reputation for being an unsavoury venue, etc.
In her story, Mary intervened reflexively. My next example is when a colleague did this instinctively.
The reason for drawing attention to this social phenomena is, to show how, if used intentionally, these are moments that can be used to turn dysfunctional behaviour into life giving experiences.
I recently observed a colleague from another department, not known particularly for his social graces, taking to a member of my team. I watched the interaction to see if a social train wreck might ensue. He said “there’s been a notice for the last few hours asking everyone to sign out of the intranet. Everyone has come off except you. Ordinarily I would be shouting the odds and telling you to get off it. But, I’m sure you have your reasons for still being logged on, and I’ve come instead to give you a hug.”
My team member replied “yes you are right I do have a really good reason”. She hugged him back and got him to help with a technical glitch she was experiencing!