HCOM 214: Interpersonal COMM & Conflict

Learning interpersonal communication skills to improve every part of our lives

Perceiving Others #4

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One conflict where punctuation mattered was an incident involving my sister this past year. The incident was actually funny and was never a source of serious tension for us. That being said, our understanding of the conflict was fiercely debated, each of us trying to defend our pride. It happened early last year when we carpooled to my school and her work. It was early in the morning and cold in the car, so we were quite grumpy. What happens next is contested.

For a long time I maintained that I was simply sitting in the passenger seat, hugging myself due to the chill in the car, when suddenly my sister turned to me and curiously said “heater?” Then, with no pause for my reply, she yelled, “WELL, TURN IT ON!!!.” It was so comically aggressive for the early morning that I remember feeling attacked and feeling that her words were unjustified because I did nothing to provoke them. In our arguments about the event, I claimed that there was silence in the car until her outburst, making myself out to be totally innocent of any responsibility for the misunderstanding. Indeed, my believed innocence is the only reason this small event was memorialized; I would make fun of her for her unprovoked aggression and her loud voice, saying things like, “remember that time you yelled at me in the car for no reason?” Then, I would jokingly imitate the entire event, highlighting her “aggression” and my confusion.

Her side of the story is quite different. She believed that I mumbled something about the heater and claimed she couldn’t hear exactly what I said. For clarity, she replied, “heater?” and quickly gathered what I had mumbled. Then, confused as to why I couldn’t just reach over and turn it on myself, she told me in a normal volume (perhaps slightly annoyed), “well, turn it on!” In her retelling of the story she makes it clear that I initiated the event and places responsibility onto me for not just turning the heater on. But when I brought it up to tease her, she always got very defensive, accused me of lying, and exaggerated in her storytelling. All this caused me to believe that I was right about the whole ordeal, that I, innocent, could use this against her forever.

Obviously, punctuation affected our perception of this interaction. I perceived her outburst as the catalyst, making me believe I was innocent. She perceived me to have started everything, making her believe she was provoked. Punctuation also affected how we resolved the issue: one day, for laughs, I was thinking this event over in my head. It occurred to me that I must have done something—mumble about the cold or perhaps gesture to the heater— for her to ask such a specific question as she did. In the end, I did the right thing by admitting to her that my argument was probably wrong and that I kept bringing it up because I thought her anger toward me was hilarious. But karma has caught up to me; now she will use this against me forever. : – (

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