Kerrying On

Kerrying On: Play It Forward

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You can’t live in a community nowadays without it happening to you once in a while. Of course, how you respond to the assault depends on where you reside. Comedian David Brenner describes the difference in approach. He says that if you live on the east coast, you say something snide and tell the offender to beat it. If you live out west, you turn to the person you’re with and complain under your breath. But you never say anything directly to the offender.

And what is this crime we’ve all suffered? Line cutting. You’re patiently waiting your turn to buy tickets when suddenly, a selfish cur has the nerve to violate all that is good and proper and cuts in front of you—as if you’re not even there. Do these people think they’re better than you? Maybe their time is more important than yours. Is that it? These are the things you think to yourself if you live in Seattle. If you live in New York, you shout these words to inconsiderate line cutters.

I live in the west where, if Brenner’s right, we mostly stay mum—but not because we’re nice or gentle. The people I know clam up because they don’t want to appear rude or break any social norms. In extreme cases, they don’t like the odds they’re facing. Anyone brazen enough to cut in line might also be aggressive enough to punch you in the nose should you point out their peccadillo—although I’m fairly sure those who do speak their minds don’t use the word “peccadillo.”

So here’s the big question: Is there a reasonable way to deal with people who violate social norms such as line cutting? Surely there’s an effective strategy that falls somewhere between the violence of name-calling and the silence of whispering insults. And if there is, could the average person learn the method and then teach it to others?

These were the questions I wanted to answer as I gathered a group of grad students to work on a research project back in the fall of 1980. To kick off our study, we established a base-line measure. We would cut into a variety of lines and observe what people actually did. The very first day we cut into fifty different lines and nobody said a word. People made faces or quietly complained to the person next to them, but nobody actually confronted the line cutter.

Having established that our neighbors were unwilling to speak up to a norm-breaking stranger, we moved ahead with our study. For the next phase we placed a graduate student from our research team in a line. After fifteen minutes, another grad student (also from our team) cut in front of the first student. Our confederate in the queue then abruptly said, “Hey bozo, don’t butt into line! The end’s back there” (pointing menacingly toward the back). After this short, terse comment, the line-cutting grad student apologized and headed to the back of the line.

Now for the interesting part. We’d wait five minutes and then cut in front of the person who had been standing directly behind our outspoken grad student. Would the research subject mimic the direct, although somewhat obnoxious script he or she had just seen? We had demonstrated an interaction that worked. The crass line cutter went to the back of the line. Would such results, despite the abrasive nature of the script, embolden the observer?

In a word, no. Our grad student told the “bozo” to get to the end of the line fifty times and in fifty different locations—but not one person who observed the interaction spoke up. As we had hypothesized, the moderately violent approach we had demonstrated was exactly what people were trying to avoid. They didn’t want to act and look rude, so they remained silent.

Next we repeated the experiment, only this time we armed the grad student standing in line with a more socially acceptable script. Our research confederate stated politely, “I’m sorry. Perhaps you’re unaware. We’ve been standing in line for over fifteen minutes.” As before, the line cutter apologized and went to the end of the line. Once again, we waited five minutes and then cut in front of the person who had just observed the interaction.

Did the more pleasant script provide an alternative the research subjects standing in line would actually use? Drum roll please.

It certainly did. Eighty-five percent of the time, the subject who had observed the more pleasant script spoke up—usually using the exact words he or she had heard: “I’m sorry, perhaps you’re unaware. We’ve been standing in line for over fifteen minutes.” When provided with a healthy alternative to silence or violence, research subjects embraced the new script and used it the first chance they had.

As this study shows, people can and do learn new scripts by observing others in action. In fact, it’s how we learn just about everything we say and do in social settings. However, unlike our line-cutting study, social scripts are rarely taught purposefully and directly. But what if this were to change? What if this year, each of us, along with our promise to get fit or stop spending so much, vowed to teach our friends, children, and direct reports effective interpersonal scripts?

For instance, a person who reports to you cares deeply about a recent change in policy. She brings up her opinion in your weekly team meeting. As she expresses her view she pushes too hard. She overstates her position, uses inflammatory language, insults those who disagree with her, and otherwise turns the group against her.

As her leader, this provides you with a wonderful chance to offer individual coaching. At the end of the meeting you talk directly with your direct report about her stance and how you supported her view—right up until the point she called everyone who disagreed with her a cretin. You explain how her approach actually turned people against her. And then you role-play the scene again—only using more effective skills. Under your careful coaching, your direct report tentatively states her view by using terms such as “perhaps,” and “I wonder.” Equally important, she asks others for their point of view and then listens.

Let’s extend this recommendation. What if you and a million other people vowed to do the same thing? That is, they agree to “play it forward”? They don’t pay it forward—it’s not an act of service that can be passed on to others, but they play it forward—it’s a social skill that can be done in acts under the guidance of a director. People conduct mini-plays where they model effective social behavior—exemplifying skills that fall between silence and violence. Equally important, when someone they know and love moves to either silence or violence, they sit down with the offending party and play out the script in a new, more effective way.

Just think about the possible impact. For instance, what if parents modeled and practiced interpersonal skills with their offspring a thousand times before their kids hit puberty? Imagine, if in addition to driving their kids to gymnastics and oboe lessons, parents built social instruction into their daily conversation—just as often, just as seriously, and just as skillfully as someone teaching music lessons? What would the world be like if part of growing up was growing socially wise?

Now all of this playing it forward would be unnecessary if we were actually skilled at speaking our mind. And maybe we are. After all, it’s been thirty years since we completed our original line-cutting research, right?

To see where we stand today, Joseph Grenny’s son replicated the study a couple years back and uncovered the same discouraging results. Nobody said anything when the ten-year-old cut in front of people standing in line. Since he was so young and people might have been reluctant to speak up to someone so small and vulnerable, he eventually asked his mom to butt in line for him. After twenty-five cases where nobody uttered a word, finally a woman tapped our research mother on the shoulder and spoke her piece.

“Who does your hair?” she asked with a smile.

It seems conclusive. When confronted by inappropriate behavior we either blow up or clam up.

But it doesn’t have to be that way. We don’t have to choose between two unhealthy options. Not if we play it forward.