In over 4 decades of living, I’ve had the misfortune of getting into all kinds of arguments with people. I’m sure you have, too, at least to some extent. However, possibly the most common cause for these arguments was the other person’s insistence on making thing personal. Some time ago, I bumped into this phenomenon in a book on Rational Emotive Behavior Analysis, which even gave it a name: personalizing.
In the great all-time book “Zen and the art of motorcycle maintenance”, humanity is split into those who are mostly concerned with the structure (or form) of things and those who only care about the function (or meaning) of things. I’m here to tell you that people can be as easily divided into those who are precise in the way they talk and those who take everything personally 😀
Here’s an example.
Mr. Smith: Darling, you’ve left your socks on the bathroom floor.
Mrs. Smith: Are you saying I’m messy?
This sort of interpretation will get you into all kinds of strife and very quickly. Let’s keep going.
Mr. Smith: No, dear, I was just thinking you might have dropped them there.
Mrs. Smith: So now you’re saying I’m careless, too?
Mr. Smith: Of course not. I’m only trying to help you.
Mrs. Smith (starting to get edgy): I don’t need any help. I can manage on my own, thank you very much.
Mr. Smith: I’m going to go downstairs for a bit.
Mrs. Smith: You just don’t want to be with me anymore, is that it?
… and so on and so forth.
Of course, this conversation could start with other things, like “You’ve made a typo”, “Watch the speedometer, dear”, “Why don’t we ask for directions?” and pretty much anything else that can be even a slight suggestion of something bad in the listener.
My theory is that such responses originate from growing up with people who did not distinguish between action- or behavior-level comments (“You’ve left the light on”) and identity-level comments (“You’re so irresponsible”).
You see, identity-level statements cause the subject to raise shields and go into red alert, in an attempt to protect their self-image. Having a childhood full of those creates a fearful and defensive person, who is too quick to perceive emotional danger to let even behavior-level statements slide.
So what to do? Well, the best thing to do is to avoid criticizing such a person at all. Instead, wait until they exhibit the desired behavior and then comment loudly and proudly on their exceptional abilities at keeping the bathroom floor free of socks.
If you’re in a real hurry, you MAY get away with slipping your comment unnoticed as the 4th or 5th statement, as in “Darling, you look wonderful today! Your hair looks so nice, your shirt color matches your eyes and you seem like you’re all set to go. Could you just pick up those socks from the bathroom floor?”