You Might Be Right, But You Won’t Have any Friends

Posted on May 2nd, 2006 in Commentary by mynagirl

“But The User Should Memorize their Training Booklet…”

I find in my life and professional career that there are two types of people:

  • Those that live in the land of “should”
  • Those that live in the land of “is”

I had a chat with a friend in college, and I asked the question whether or not health insurance companies should pay for preventive maintenance. “Of course they should!” she exclaimed. I countered by saying that insurance companies are essentially financial organizations, if preventive maintenance didn’t lower their costs, why should they do it? Her response was, “Well, well… just because it’s right!”

And that may be… it may be “right” (in the moral sense) to provide preventive care to people, but no company is going to do it just because it’s “right” — they’ll only do it if they’re losing customers because they don’t offer it, or if companies start to pay extra for health insurance in order to attract and retain their own employees. That’s how the free-market economy works. That’s reality.

So if you want to get your health insurance company to offer preventive maintenance, I would argue that the least effective thing you could do would be to tell your health insurance company that you need it. They don’t have really any big financial incentive to do it for one person whose health insurance is determined by their employer. A better idea would be to tell your employer you need it, and/or get other employees to join their voice to the chorus. Then maybe your employer (who actually has the power to change health insurance companies) will ask your health insurance provider for it. An even better idea is that if you’re the one who really needs it, pay for it yourself or go find an employer whose health insurance offers it.

Similar things are rampant at work. Lots of people get caught up in “should” and “it isn’t fair”. Things such as:

  • There’s no need to put an intuitive “helper” text on an application form, because everyone should have received training on the app.
  • I shouldn’t have to code a “back” button on a web site page, because the browser has a back button, and the user should know to use that instead.
  • It isn’t fair that we have to help a customer who caused their own problem; the customer should just fix it themselves.

I find these types of arguments / whining very frustrating, because wanting people (especially customers) to act the way you think they “should” is really an exercise in futility. It’s like hitting your head against a brick wall — it might seem like a good idea, until you do it. And no sane person would think that they could actually break the wall with their skull.

The husband of a friend of mine once said (in response to something I was whining about), “Well, you might be right, but you won’t have any friends”. It was such a great truth I was immediately dumbstruck. He was right: what good was expecting people do X if it didn’t make for a harmonious relationship? What good is expecting users to use the back button if they aren’t web-savvy enough to know about the back button? What good is demanding a customer fix her own problem if it makes her so mad she takes her business elsewhere?

The Reaction Equation

This brings me to another corollary of this same philosophy:

E + R = O


Events + your Reaction = Outcome

I can’t take credit for this one either; it’s from a seminar I attended for work many years ago. The concept is this: in this equation, the only thing you can tailor to affect the “O” is your “R”. The events are just gonna happen, so figure out what outcome you’d like to see and pick your reaction according. Again, this is so simple and logical and practical, yet it was a revelation to me.

Yes, a rainy / stormy day on your tropical vacation sucks. But if your desired Outcome is a fun and relaxing vacation, you can decide that your Reaction on that day is to get that all-day spa treatment you were thinking about: then you’ve tailored your reaction to still ensure that you get a good vacation. Or you can do whatever else you never get enough time to do during the week that would still equal “relaxing vacation” for you: playing chess, napping in the hammock, reading a trashy novel, cross-stitching.

Same thing goes for work: if a coworker slacks off and doesn’t do their job on your project, you can either:

  1. Get irritated that the coworker “should” have done their job and refuse to do it yourself, or
  2. Send the coworker a reminder email to do their tasks, or
  3. Do it yourself to make sure it gets done and be really mad about it, or
  4. Do it yourself to make sure it gets done, then address the issue appropriately later

Which one you pick depends on your desired outcome. If your primary desired outcome is to point out that your coworker isn’t doing their job, options #1 or #2 are for you, but they preclude or risk the outcome of successful project completion. If your desired outcome is that the project finish on time / successfully, then you have to pick #3 or #4, since you can’t really affect whether or not the coworker does their job. If you don’t want it to happen all the time, then maybe #4 is the right path.

So the equation doesn’t really mean there’s one right answer, but it does mean that you focus on what you want out of the situation and tailor your reaction. This can be especially helpful in interpersonal relationships that drive you crazy. If you have a friend who constantly whines about her various physical ailments and you wish she would stop, your main choices are that you can ignore it, listen and sympathize, or tell her flat-out that you’re not interested. Assuming you still want to maintain this friendship, #1 is probably your best option. #2 is going to get you more whining, and #3, telling her to stop, risks the friendship. It may seem “cold” to look at friendships this way, but it can actually be quite freeing — or at least, self-educational.

I was friends with a girl once who had gone through a terrible divorce. Initially I didn’t mind listening to her and being her friend, but eventually it became this horrible nightly parade of negativity, much of it heaped on me (long story, but she saw parallels between my life and that of her ex-husband). After a while when nothing I tried could dispel her endless venomous rantings, I quit being her friend. That was the only reaction I could come up with that got me to a good outcome — not having vitriol hurled at me.

Everyone Does What’s Easiest for Them

Now, none of this means you can’t vent if something irritates you. I mean, one of your outcomes is probably to make yourself feel better about a given situation, and if venting to a neutral third party helps, then it’s definitely a good reaction to have. But in general I find when people look at their “R”s, they all do what’s easiest for them. (This bit of wisdom is from my wonderful husband Engineerboy).

You probably know at least a couple friends who go visit relatives regularly, and a subset of those friends would probably prefer not to go visit at least some of the time, but they go anyway. This is because it’s easier for them to be considered a “good son/daughter/grandchild/cousin” than it is for them to disappoint their relatives. Their desired “O” is to be a good family member and not shirk obligations. For someone else, the equation may work out so that it’s easier for them to deal with disappointing their family members then have to leave home for a visit. Their “O” may be to not respond to guilt, or to simply be home more. So everyone does what’s easiest for them and their personal makeup / situation.

One last example: picture an office worker who routinely brings in fancy coffee to the office. She freely shares the coffee with the other team members, because it’s easier for her to pay for expensive coffee for everyone than it is for her to endure the crappy coffee that’s provided. Her desired Outcome is quality coffee every morning. If the company then decides to improve their coffee situation, it would be silly to demand that the company reimburse her for all the fancy coffee she bought in the past — after all, she was just doing what was easiest for her.


Anyway, I just had to get this out of my system and now I feel better. I’ve tailored my reaction to certain people I interact with whose behaviors I don’t understand by driving toward my desired outcome: being able to feel better about it without actively being hostile to people I know. Plus, maybe there are a few of you out there that will find these truisms as much of a revelation as they were to me. And that’s the best Outcome of all.

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