When Life Gives You Tomatoes
Contributing Author: Mary Ashley, NDAA Well-being Task Force Vice Chair
A friend of mine recently flew out of state for a job interview. It was scheduled as a breakfast meeting at a hotel restaurant. She had only packed a carry-on bag for the one day of travel that evening, with the plan to return the next day after the interview. She put on her neatly packed professional attire, reviewed her notes and headed down from her hotel room to the restaurant for the early interview. Just as everyone was receiving their food and in full conversation, the waitress accidentally hit a Ketchup bottle, which spilled all over my friend. And we’re not talking a couple drips. The Ketchup exploded all over the front of her blouse and jacket, covering her with tomato and sugar drenched clumps.
Now, we know not to “cry over spilled milk” and “accidents do happen”, but imagine having that happen the moment you are trying to land a job and in front of the group of people making that decision? It is how my friend handled the situation that prompted me to write this essay about how we choose to react to the unexpected.
In an article written by Dr. Jennice Vilhauer Ph.D., she described one strategy for dealing with life’s curveballs: pause before you act. (4 Ways to Survive Unexpected Situations, Psychology Today, May 21, 2016). Dr. Vilhauer writes that there is a huge difference between a reaction and response. “Reactions are very quick, especially when we feel threatened in some way. On the other hand, a response is something you consciously choose to do based on a more thoughtful assessment of a situation.” I imagine in most situations that are immediate it would cause us to react rather than respond. Whether you feel in shock or surprised, it can be difficult to then “choose” how to respond rather than react.
My friend described seeing the mess all over the front of her and down her chest, stomach and pants. Feeling embarrassed and horrified, she just froze for a moment. The waitress was instantly apologetic and frazzled. My friend says she looked at the waitress and said “It’s ok. It was an accident.” She then turned to the interviewers and said “Would you excuse me for a just a moment. I will be right back.” Without missing a beat, she went upstairs to her room, quickly changed her blouse, wiped the ketchup off her jacket and pants (she’d only brought those with her), threw the towel in the sink and headed right back down to the interview. She took some deep breathes, calmed herself, put on a smile and continued the meeting.
How would others have handled this, I wonder? Granted, my friend is someone who already has high emotional intelligence and resiliency skills, but how was she able to remain so composed? In a world where we now see people screaming at one another, lashing out in public, resorting to profanity and even violence for what might have been an accident or even a thoughtless intentional act, what is the difference in how we can learn to respond rather than react even in sudden situations? One’s response might be based on that perception of potential danger. In this situation, she was not scalded with hot coffee or shocked by a bucket of ice being thrown on her head. Albeit her physical space was invaded, it was more “embarrassing” than threatening. It seems that today, we encounter more incidents where people are overacting to the feeling of being wronged or embarrassed, rather than threatened by danger. Why is that? I wonder if it goes beyond the physical level, where people resort to poor reactions based on emotional fear? How do we fix it? My friend said she knew it was not done intentionally, so maybe that is the difference. But for some, it would seem their negative reactions come out prior to determining the intent or cause behind the act.
After the incident, when she returned to the table to finish the interview, she was immediately complimented by the interviewers on her calm demeanor and handling of the situation. Imagine if she had screamed at the waitress, stomped out of the restaurant or yelled for the manager? All could have been reactions to what happened.
Ultimately, she was not offered the position. But the experience itself and lesson was more valuable than the job. She mastered responding over reacting. In my opinion, she took one tomato and planted a garden.
Well-being Task Force Vice Chair, Mary Ashley, is a Deputy District Attorney with the San Bernardino County District Attorney’s Office. Along with being a Board member of NDAA, Mary is also a member of the California District Attorneys Association and NDAA’s Vice Chair of the Women Prosecutors Section.