Saturday, October 17, 2009

Study: Majority of "Calm Downs" Ineffective

I'm sure you've been in a situation like this. Someone you know, maybe a friend, relative, or significant other, is wound up about something. You can hear it in the edging upward of their voice, and see it in their bulging eyes and pitch-red face. As the shouting roars into the now dead silent air, you're beginning to wonder if a murderous punch is far behind. You reach for their hand, trying desperately to fake a smile. And then you hear the words that almost never work - "Only 9 percent according to a recent study at Cornell University" - crawl out of your fear-mangled mouth: "Calm down." "Calm down." You keep saying it, trying out slightly different sound variations, hoping one of them will be the one that will cut through the madness.

The title for today's post is from "Americas Finest News Source" = The Onion. For those of you who aren't familiar with this fine publication, you can check it out here. This is not your average newspaper, nor is it a muckraking political journal, although at times it may seem like that. No, The Onion is just good old fashioned, well informed comedy. A little balm for your real news-tired eyes. In other words, there was no "calm down" study done at Cornell University.

However, what's really funny is that even though the whole article about the ineffectiveness of using the phrase "calm down" was made up, it's actually pretty true. People who are wound up, who are either intensely angry or intensely sad or some other intensely tend not to respond too positively to the kinds of interventions that imply they are out of control or overreacting. In fact, saying something like calm down sometimes makes things worse because the person it's directed at thinks you're talking down to them, or trying to shut them down. Notice how often the word "down" appears in the previous sentence. It's no coincidence. Calm down. Talking down. Shutting down. There's an increasing level of pressure at play in each of these phrases when activated in the brain. The good intentions of the person uttering the original phrase thus are lost as the other person either escalates or stuffs everything.

It's important to see that this particular pattern isn't always true, or even mostly true. And it's definitely the case that with the right person, under the right circumstances, the use of a phrase like "calm down" is exactly what's called for. But when it comes to being skillful in intense, or even not very intense, situations, it's helpful to respond in a fresh, of the moment way. "Calm down" isn't very fresh, is it? It's the kind of cliche that we fall back on when we feel scared or confused, and haven't trained our minds well enough to be settled in the muck and still be able to respond.

So, next time you're in an escalated situation, remember the research that Cornell University never did, and pause before saying or doing the same thing you always do.


spldbch said...

Very true -- and I like your source. I'm also a big fan of The Onion.

Actually, I wonder if it might be effective to try to empathize with an upset person and to reflect back what the person is saying. Something like, "I see that you're angry. Tell me what's going on." Or "You're really upset. Maybe we can talk about it." Of course, there is no perfect response and each situation is different. People like to have their feelings validated though, so it might help.

Nathan said...

I definitely think that empathizing can help. Even calm down could help under the right circumstances, it's just that it's such an overused phrase to the point of cliche. I think that what's called for is always changing, so our efforts to support others need to be combined with good attention.