Upset over pink paper, stranger’s mistake? Let go of distress

Almost two years ago I got remarried after being divorced. My children didn’t want me to start using my husband’s last name and I didn’t want to go through the hassle of getting a new driver’s license and notifying my bank and utilities, so I decided to keep my current last name.

However, some people assumed that I had changed my name and would call me by my husband’s last name. I was surprised at how much this bothered me. Why did people just assume I was going to change my name? After all, this is the 21st century and not all women change their names when they get married.

Although this assumption bothered me, when others get married I too assume that the woman will change her name. Why did the behavior of others bother me so much when I did the same thing? I wanted people to understand my situation and be aware of my feelings. It would have been easy for me to become offended and upset with those who made assumptions about me. However, I took a step back and realized these people were not trying to bother me. They just thought I was following a traditional practice and may have even been trying to congratulate me on my newly married state.

At the beginning of October, The Republic ran its annual cancer issue and printed most of the newspaper on pink paper to remind us of Breast Cancer Awareness Month. I saw many Orchids thanking the paper for their awareness and appreciating the gesture. I also saw many Onions complaining about the pink paper. What was the difference between the two groups? One chose to look at the intentions behind the pink paper and the other only looked at what bothered them. Yes, the pink paper can make it harder to read the newspaper, but the editors were not trying to make the paper more challenging to read.

People do lots of things that may bother us, but generally they are not intentionally trying to annoy us. When people upset us, we get to choose whether or not we will be offended. We should look at their intentions and give them the benefit of the doubt. They were probably not aware that what they did could cause us distress. Those that called me by my husband’s last name were not aware of my feelings on that issue and so there was no need for me to become offended.

So, how do we avoid getting offended? I’ve learned that I need to give myself time to let my initial angry reaction subside before I can look at the situation more objectively. Then I can see that maybe I am being oversensitive or that I am overreacting to the situation. Does it really matter what name people call me or that the newspaper is pink one day of the year?

Once I have calmed down, I can more easily put myself in other people’s shoes and look at their intentions and what else is going on in their life. Maybe they don’t understand my situation or maybe something else is bothering them and their frustration spilled over to me.

But what about when someone is trying to upset us? We can still choose to not be offended and try to understand where that person is coming from. Yes, what that person did may bother us, but we don’t have to dwell on it or let it fester. I have had students tell me I’m not a good teacher. While that may spur me to examine my teaching methods, I don’t take their comments personally. They may not have received the grade they wanted or our personalities just didn’t mesh.

On the flip side, how do we keep from offending someone? When people called me the wrong name, I learned that I just wanted people to understand my situation. Trying to understand others’ situations can help us to be aware of things that might bother them. I also learned that I should not make assumptions based on what I considered normal. We, too, can avoid making assumptions based on our perceptions.

Now, we probably won’t be able to make it through life without unintentionally saying or doing something that someone else will find upsetting. This can be difficult when our society is so focused on being politically correct, which can make us feel like anything we say could be considered offensive. However, if we know our actions have caused someone distress, we can apologize. Hopefully, others will give us the benefit of the doubt and realize our intentions were not to harm.

I am happier when I assume that offensive actions were made unintentionally and when I try to understand others’ situations and feelings. I think we could all benefit from this approach, so give it a try.

Susan Cox is one of The Republic’s community columnists, and all opinions expressed are those of the writer. She is a mother, an adjunct instructor of English at Ivy Tech Community College-Columbus and a substitute teacher for Bartholomew Consolidated School Corp. She can be reached at editorial@therepublic.com.