Saturday, November 21, 2015

Dealing with Reality - I: Behaviour Classification

Noah's Ark - Public Domain picture
from Wikipedia {{PD-US}}
 As children – at home and at school – we internalized the dichotomies of good-vs-bad, right-vs-wrong, proper-vs-improper, ethical vs. unethical, moral vs. immoral and so on. At work, we were programmed to absorb the dichotomies of optimal vs. suboptimal, compliant vs. non-compliant, process-driven vs. ad-hoc, etc.

And then, out of the blue, came reality.

So we encounter and have to deal with – either directly or indirectly – idiots driving the wrong way (and getting away with it), Supreme Court judges who reduce a UIDAI to an optional identity card, corrupt authorities, nuisance neighbours, ruderless leaders, hypocrites, people who progress on the “wrong merits”, a dysfunctional political system, a mainstream-media ecosystem that has completely collapsed and what have you.

Sometimes, it’s a little closer to home like a ruined or cancelled vacation, the home team grabbing defeat from the jaws of victory or a culinary accident when you are having important guests over.

Sometimes, it’s more serious like experiencing or watching at close quarters, bad things happening to good people. Or failed relationships. Or being party against your will, to an injustice.

How does one deal with this reality?

This is a question I have often struggled with – and sometimes, still struggle with. How does one fit what we are facing and how does one fit the decisions we have to make in all those black-and-white options we have programmed to learn?

In continuation of my Upgrade to Colour, an important - and effective - lesson I have learnt is really a simple one: acknowledge the reality. This may seem ludicrously obvious, but not only was it not so obvious to me in the beginning, but also, I find a lot of people grappling with this elusive realization.

While we will embrace desirable, and while we will shun the undesirable, we often forget that above all that, the stark reality that confronts us is what we have to deal with. In that moment and in those circumstances, all else has only academic relevance at that moment. That a waitlisted ticket should have gotten confirmed means nothing if it hasn’t. You have to deal with the fact that you don’t have a confirmed ticket to travel on. Right then, right there. That a near one shouldn’t have been diagnosed with an illness means nothing in the face of having to decide what you have to do next. 

Acknowledging the reality hardly resolves the issue at hand. What it does do though, is provide a clear demarcation between what we can control and what we cannot control; and hence serves as a pointer to where we must invest our energies and more importantly, where we must not.

In my struggles with reality, one important exercise I have undertaken is to develop a catalogue of individuals. Since human interaction forms a critical component of our lives, I have found that classifying the people I have to deal with helps me deal with my own emotions.

This post describes the categories that I have identified as ones who consume extra “resources” (i.e., patience and energy, mostly) when you are dealing with them. Constructing this catalog doesn’t mean they go away or that their behavior changes nor even that I am magically able to deal with them. What it does do however, is mentally – and usually, instantly – prepare me for my interactions with them.


By Jean-Pierre Dalbera from Paris, FranceReused
under Creative Commons License
Utterboxes are like self-winding toys – they keep going, they recharge themselves and they keep going regardless of what’s happening around them.

Utterboxes go one step beyond chatterboxes. Like chatterboxes, utterboxes tend to talk non-stop; usually about trivial matters. But while chatterboxes essentially engage in conversation, utterboxes have the ability to go the “extra rile” and engage in lengthy monologues without any common theme, topic, thread or purpose.

They seem to have an urge to simply keep delivering a constant flow of utterances and seemingly have little or no control over their utterances. They will sometimes even repeat what others have just said merely to express their agreement or solidarity with what has been said (and I suspect they do this unintentionally) Why? I have no idea!

Sometimes they will participate in conversations they aren’t really part of, but are merely hearing by virtue of being physically present in the room or vicinity. They usually have no second thoughts about conveying information and opinions without themselves verifying anything or weighing in on what was said.

Often, they will make utterances to suit the immediate context (or so they think) and yet, they are usually oblivious to the irrelevance of their utterances in the immediate context! Overall, the utterances serve little or no purpose – other than keeping people engaged. And that perhaps, is the single largest advantage of having utterboxes around: when you have guests at home, an awkward lull in the conversation in a social setting, or a little inertia in breaking the ice with someone you have just met, you can count on utterboxes to come to the rescue.

Importantly, utterboxes usually mean no harm or malintent and their utterances are usually benign. If you are going to act on anything that was conveyed to you by an utterbox however, it is always good to first verify it. 

This is because the utterances are usually delivered with enhanced intonations, gestures and expressions that tend to mislead.

However, utterboxes sometimes rub people the wrong way. Not intentionally, but because it’s bound to happen: mathematically, the greater the net volume of words uttered, the greater the probability of a word being out of place!

Dealing with utterboxes

Once I have classified an individual as a “utterbox”, I usually don’t retain anything they say. Not that I forget what they have said; I just don’t take them seriously. If something worthwhile does catch my attention I always verify it before I use that information any further. The significance of consciously recognizing this category of individuals and their behavior – including the important part about them usually meaning no harm - is that it helps me deal with them without getting flustered, confused or distracted.


Verbalanches are relatively difficult to handle.

Verbalanches are people who, when displeased with a situation or person, express that displeasure with an intensity that is disproportionate to the situation/problem at hand. Like avalanches, they will only weaken after they have blown their full force and finished saying what they have to say.  And like avalanches, they can be unpredictable: a small pebble can trigger the landslide while at other times serious digging or drilling may produce nothing more than some insignificant vibrations.

What complicates matters is that very often, they are ranting about someone or something that you have nothing to do with, but the utterances are made with such intensity that you will probably believe you are being blamed for it. Woe betide you if you offer an explanation or hypothesis  that sounds like a justification. I have on occasion been held “in contempt” for “unduly defending” the actions of an individual that the verbalanche was ranting about.

Once the floodgates are opened – i.e., the verbalanche has started speaking and expressing his/her views (usually, displeasure or disagreement) – it is virtually impossible to stop or regulate the flow. There is no point trying to interrupt these people because they will not stop till they have had their say. Over time, I have realized that they are not bulldozing your interruptions – they are just not hearing you. And hence, the best course of action for you is to patiently wait for them to stop talking.

Unlike utterboxes who will at most annoy you with their constant utterances, verbalanches often tend to rub people the wrong way and usually cause some damage in relationships. Depending on the intensity of the utterances and the temperament of the other person(s) involved, the damage can sometimes be permanent. It is sad that many times, the verbalanche never meant to hurt or demean the other person in the first place, but even sadder is the fact that the realization of the consequences of his/her utterances seldom dawns on the verbalanche.

Dealing with Verbalanches

Step aside and wait. It's usually over as soon as it starts.

My single largest victory with this category of people has been recognizing the pattern of their behaviour. Initially, I used to get flustered because I could not bring myself to silently hear the tirade, hear it when I had nothing to do with it and above all, be “ignored” or “bulldozed” when I tried to offer any explanation. Now, when I encounter a verbalanche coming down like a ton of bricks I am able to achieve a fair degree of detachment that allows me to step out of harm’s way and wait patiently for the tirade to subside before I attempt to say anything. If at all. All the while, without letting the conversation affect me. If s/he is the category of verbalanches that cannot accept justifications or explanations, then I just patiently wait for them to finish so that I can nod and walk away.


Monkey Justice shared from Curioso
under the Creative Commons License
As Maya Angelou very aptly put it, “Prejudice is a burden that confuses the past, threatens the future, and renders the present inaccessible”.

Prejudists have an uncanny and dogged immunity to facts that do not align with the opinion they’ve already formed or a decision they’ve already made. The opinion can be about just anything in the world. People, food, services, service-providers, technology, hazards. Perhaps the only thing worse than a prejudist is a prejudist with an ego.

In effect, with prejudists you’re “guilty” until you’re proven guilty. Which means, any evidence that establishes your “innocence” will promptly be discarded to make way for the evidence – which may never come along anyway – that will establish your guilt.

Prejudists by nature & definition, harbor an irrational suspicion for the objects of their ire or for anything that remotely threatens the sanctity of their opinions.

Prejudices are about people or entities (e.g., so-and-so is dishonest; Konkan Railway is unreliable; Zomato sells your data) or about theories & objects (e.g., TV remotes are as harmful as mobile phones, cooking on induction stoves is harmful to health, it’s okay for diabetics to eat sweets made from jaggery). 

Dealing with prejudists

Agree to disagree, without disagreeing

As long as the conclusions they draw and how they act on those conclusions do not affect you directly, it is best to give them a patient hearing and leave it at that. Trying to rationalize or argue with prejudists is usually futile. So if an established prejudist insists that the Coke or 7Up chilled in a LG refrigerator tastes better than one chilled in a Samsung refrigerator, avoid disagreeing with them. The trick is to be able to walk away by making them think that your lack of disagreement implies agreement. Of course, at times they may be spreading misinformation – e.g., Konkan Railway is unreliable, speed governors will reduce life of the tyres, etc. At such times one has to step in and step up. But as long you are not forced to refrigerate your soft drink only in a certain refrigerator, just don’t disagree.

Horse Blinders by Maryland GovPics
shared under Creative Commons License
from Wikimedia

These are the type of people who will probably be happy when someone at home falls ill so that medicines in the medicine cabinet could be used before their expiry date.

In effect, these people inhibit themselves from seeing the big picture. Ever. Their scope of vision, thinking, perspective, analysis, reasoning… everything… is just too narrow (hence, “micro-scope”).

The micro-scopes I have dealt with have been varied. They include a high-ranking executive of a software-services company telling a senior sales executive not to send the customary box of chocolates during Christmas to a fairly large client because that client had not increased the Q-o-Q billing that quarter. And the CFO of a $60-million company putting on hold at the nth hour, an employee’s APPROVED relocation from one country to another (within the same organization), because the internal cost-allocation had not been finalized. And the businessman who refuses to accept payment from a customer because s/he is unable to provide the exact invoice number against which the payment is being provided. And the Purchase Officer who fought with the vendor to reduce transport charges by Rs. 100/- for the goods worth Rs. 1.5 lakhs that he was transporting.

Dealing with micro-scopes: I have till date not found an effective strategy to deal with microscopes. If they’re young, you can coach them and educate them, but if they’re older and more experienced, it’s probably a lost cause. Sometimes, where feasible and practical, if constant reinforcing of the fallacy of their narrow vision does not work, try something radical. The most vivid memory I have and most effective measure I know of is the vendor who was forced by the Purchase Officer to knock off Rs. 100/- from the transport charges: he sent the goods by bullock cart!

Like they say, “Only ignorance can be fixed; stupid is forever”.


These are usually petty-minded people who have a singular focus on themselves and “all things them”: their well-being, their advantage, their convenience, their priority, implications to them. They also exhibit an exceptional foresight and analytical ability – usually absent otherwise – in connecting the dots to make a holistic determination of how any course of action or decision will affect them.

They are usually inconsiderate, but demand that everyone else be considerate.

Ask them do something for you and you will instantly see in action, machinations at work to deflect the task from them.

These people don’t realize that when if you care only about yourself, very soon, you’ll be the only one who cares about you.

In some cases though, “no one else caring for them” is the cause rather than the effect of their behaviour. In other words, I have found that some “selfies” – like rebels-without-a-cause – have been subject to some form of overbearing authority or humiliation or neglect in the past. At other times it’s because they have grown up in hard circumstances and had to fend for themselves. Their tendency to focus on themselves I would guess is the natural outcome of that subjugation or hurt or neglect.

Dealing with selfies: When I encounter a selfie, my instinct is to be tough and firm while at the same time being polite. Wherever possible – and it’s not often that it is possible – I try to determine whether their behaivour stems from some past ghost they are dealing with or just plain selfishness. Wherever possible though, humour them. Not because of anything else but so that they don’t generate nuisance value. But when required, don’t hesitate to shoo them off lest they take advantage of you.


In many ways, I feel selfies and rebels-without-a-cause have similar backgrounds; selfies just focus inward; rebels just push everything outwards. Selfies are usually passive, rebels-without-a-cause are aggressive. Most of the rebels-without-a-cause I have come across seemed to be struggling with an inferiority complex or from some overbearing authority that they were subject to.

At some level I sympathize with them because they are still trying to shake off that deep-rooted memory and angst from long back.

In general though, they become a spanner in the works and show several traits of prejudists and tend to be anti-establishment. For them, “being different” is a conscious objective rather than an incidental outcome – i.e., they will want to do something differently more to be different, than because they actually have something of substance that just happens to be different. For example, you will find them sporting a weird haircut just because they were perhaps forced against their will to cut their hair in a particular way and not because they actually like the haircut they are sporting. Or you will find them breaking a norm or process or traditional practice merely because they want to establish that they will have the final say than because they truly believe they have found some alternative.

Confrontation with them is usually futile and achieves little other than sullying the air for everyone.

Dealing with rebels-without-a-cause:  

Pick your battles. My most effective technique with rebels-without-a-cause has been letting them have their way if in the larger picture, it is not of much significance. Even at times when it is inconvenient to me. I have found that this serves the dual purposes of gaining their trust & respect (something that comes in handy for a larger battle) and of helping them realize themselves, the fallacy of their deeds. This is however, neither easy nor possible. Especially when there are other stakeholders in the picture.

In conclusion, dealing with the “human factor” is becoming an increasingly important part of our daily lives. I really on my catalog to help me navigate the contours of human behavior.