Adam and Serena both had really bad days at work.
Adam’s boss yelled at him and told him that he better learn how things work in the office or he might find himself on the job market. Adam had been having conflicts with his boss, but things never reached the point where his job was threatened.
The hell of it was that Adam knew he was doing his job just fine.
The real issue was that the boss’s job was itself being threatened and his boss was afraid that Adam was next in line for his boss’s job. By getting rid of Adam, the boss hoped to make it harder for his boss to fire him.
Serena was not afraid of losing her job. But she was working on a 3-person virtual team where one person somehow always had supposed problems making her IT work, so that she often was not on the calls or did not stay on them, while the other person was always looking to offload work onto anyone she could get to do it.
That left Serena doing the work of three people but only getting credit and pay for doing her own work. Serena couldn’t figure out how to get out of the mess she was in with a team that was totally dysfunctional.
When Adam got home, Serena was obviously in a bad mood.
“Late again?” asked Serena.
“Yeah, problems with my boss,” Adam replied.
“The dinner is cold,” Serena added.
“I’m sorry,” Adam said. “Really bad day.”
“Right. Like every other day. Maybe you should make your own dinners. I’m just tired of eating by myself and watching your food get cold. You’re always home like an hour later than you’re supposed to be. If you weren’t so damn overweight, I might think you’re seeing someone after work.”
“Serena, your weight isn’t so great either, since you mention it. We get married and you proceed to gain 20 pounds before I can blink. You shouldn’t talk about weight. And I’m certainly not worried about your seeing anyone. They’d listen to you bitch about anything you can find and they would be out of the door. At least I don’t trash talk you every day.”
“You know something, Adam? I had a really bad day. But at least I’m not a jerk like you.”
Adam and Serena are obviously in a bad way when it comes to interacting with each other.
Instead of trying to cool down what is obviously an unnecessary conflict, both are feeling frustrated with their jobs and with each other, so they are making it worse.
But they are also doing something else that is making a bad situation worse.
In social psychology, we sometimes speak of something called the “fundamental attribution error.” It is also called, more accurately, the "actor-observer" effect.
Basically, it means that when we make a mistake and act badly, we attribute it to situational factors, like a bad day at work or our just not feeling so up that day.
But when someone else makes a mistake and acts badly, we attribute it to their disposition. We conclude there is something fundamentally wrong with them.
Serena attributes her biting comments to her having a bad day; but she attributes Adam’s acid comments to his being a jerk.
Adam essentially does the same thing, saying that Serena bitches about anything she can find to criticize.
The result is that a senseless argument just gets worse and worse.
The lesson of the interaction between Adam and Serena is an amazingly simple one, and yet most of us never learn it. Do you know what it is?
The lesson is that almost all of us have a built in bias in our thinking. The fundamental attribution error is called that because it is, well, so fundamental.
Other people are just as susceptible to having a bad day—to bad situations—as we are. Really!
There is nothing so special about us that makes it so that trash-talking is just the result of our being in a bad mood, but for others, it is the result of their being jerks.
Try making situational attributions not just for yourself, but for your partner. Cut them the same break you want them to cut you.
You’ll find that you’ll be a whole lot happier and your relationship will become a whole lot better!