A meme has made its rounds on the internet on more than one occasion. It reads, “Never in the history of calming down has anyone ever actually calmed down by being told to calm down”. A variant of it reads, “Telling a girl to calm down is like trying to baptize a cat”. Now, there is definitely something to this concept, but while most people just take the laugh at face value and move on to the next adorable kitten, I did what I normally do – spent an inordinate amount of time contemplating the notion. Here’s what I came up with…
Most people have a normal state of ‘calm’. Sure, Bill up in the psych wing at General Hospital might not be, but if you ride the subway to work you can probably walk from one end of the train to the other and not find someone going bananas. So, if most people are ‘calm’ by default, then the person who is not calm has some sort of external force preventing them from being calm, and what is being demonstrated is the result of that force on them.
When interacting with others in that state, their agitation will be apparent and relevant to those with whom they interact. Sometimes, saying “calm down” is the result of trying to get someone to speak slowly enough to understand what is being said so that assistance can be provided (a 911 operator would be a go-to example of this scenario). In most cases, however, the phrase “calm down” is not dealing with that sort of a situation. Usually it has a far more nefarious and even hurtful undertone.
“Calm down” can frequently imply that it is the agitated person’s responsibility to force themselves to act in a manner contrary to how they feel. It also indicates that the second person does not place the same value on the situation which has caused the person’s state of unrest, which can imply that the person is a poor judge of a situation, or that assistance will not be provided because the two people cannot agree on the proper value to place on that situation, resulting in further agitation. The person has basically been told, “I don’t care about what’s bothering you, I’m not going to help you resolve the matter, and further interaction requires you to act in a manner contrary to your feelings right now”. When phrased this way, it is far more apparent why saying “calm down” is not the way to diffuse a situation.
“So what do we say instead, Joey?” I thought you’d never ask. “What’s wrong” is usually a good start – it implies that you are listening to what’s troubling the other person. If you’re unable to help, say so, but make it clear that it’s because you’re unable to, rather than unwilling. If you are able to help, be sure to ask first – imposing help upon someone who doesn’t desire it will likely become more agitated because their assessment of the situation is such that the complexity has increased, rather than decreased. Sometimes, having a platform on which to state the problem out loud is enough – think about the times when a joke “sounded better in your head”, and consider that the phenomenon of something being more clear when being spoken aloud happens in other situations as well. The brain uses different sections for speech, which is why speaking aloud can greatly assist in solving the problem. Finally, even if you assess a problem to be far less urgent than the person speaking, ensure they know you are not simply dismissing it, but have given it actual thought and consideration yourself. It may not help in the moment, but it will ultimately assist in the relationship as a whole.
Keep calm, and carry on.