Image by Steve Buissinne from Pixabay

So there’s an old saying: “I don’t trust words, I even question actions, but I never doubt patterns.” For example, once a friend arrives late for three consecutive lunches, I expect tardiness. Same story with people who constantly argue over the tiniest thing. Our behaviors are generally consistent.

Now, this is obvious. Nothing really new here, right? But let’s flip it around and explore how I used this to improve my relationships.

Whenever a friend is gruff or curt, I resist the urge to feel annoyed. I try to catch myself and ask: Is this a pattern or an exception? Does this brief interaction represent all of my experiences with them?

In my experience, annoying behavior is an exception. It usually results from the other person having a bad day. Maybe they slept poorly, skipped a meal, or arrived late to work. Maybe they feel stressed with a personal issue. I mean, we’re all a bit cantankerous when aspects of our lives are in chaos.

With that said, in general, my friends are courteous and considerate. Whenever we meet for lunch or go to a movie, they’re polite, tactful, and mindful of others. Same story with my spouse, coworkers, and even strangers on public transit. This applies to pretty much everyone!

Knowing this makes it far easier to ignore the occasional curt comment coming from a friend who just feels frustrated. I brush the incident off and forget about it—just as I hope they’ll disregard my occasional crabbiness!

Asking: Is this a pattern or an exception? has really improved my relationships. This simple tool has helped me bypass numerous negative response cycles with friends, where I call out their behavior, they respond, and I respond, each time escalating things. This tool helps me breeze past a brief bit of negativity, and in some cases, avoid an all-out argument.

I cannot overstate how useful this tool is. Maybe I’m just oversensitive and really need a tool like this, but it has helped me chill out and not nitpick every aspect of every interaction. (Maybe you don’t do this, gentle reader, but I certainly do!) It’s quieted my ego, whose natural inclination is to bristle at even the slightest slight.

As a result, life is much smoother. I can focus on my goals without getting derailed by petty arguments about social etiquette. Better yet, I have way more friends now that I gave up my post as tone police and retired my Miss Manners apron.

And I encourage you to do the same. Whenever a friend is grumpy, grouchy, or snippy, try ignoring it. Ask: Is this a pattern or an exception? Does this represent all interactions, or is it just a moment of irritability? Most likely, it’s an exception, and they’re just having a rough day. Just ignore exceptional behavior, and your relationships will stay strong.

Thanks to Diane Callahan, Thomas Weigel, and Todd Ericksen for reading a draft of this!