I try to be direct, but my girlfriend often sees this as meanness. For example, when we’re out to dinner, she sometimes takes forever to order when the server is standing right there. I’ll call her out on this – tell her she was rude to keep the guy waiting. Personally, I think it’s unhealthy in the long run to keep quiet about issues, but my girlfriend gets upset whenever I give her constructive criticism. How can I convince her that she’s being too sensitive? –Honest
There are times when directness is best. Like if you’re an air traffic controller. What’s important is not that you make the pilot feel supported in his life goals, but that he brings the plane to a stop on the runway instead of in some lady’s pool.
But in many non-emergency situations, being direct – like bluntly criticizing someone – is about as effective as throwing somebody a fruit basket instead of a life preserver when they’re drowning. The problem, as I explain in Good Manners for Nice People Who Sometimes Say F*ck, is that “criticizing people doesn’t make them change; it makes them want to clobber you.” Because of a lack of software updates to our body’s ancient fight-or-flight system, we respond to a verbal attack with the same supercharged biochemical ammo we would if we were attacked by some sharp-fanged thing looking to turn our left eyeball into an after-dinner mint.
You are right, by the way; your restaurant table shouldn’t start to seem like a bus stop for the wait staff because your girlfriend’s applying Bayes’ theorem to whether she’d prefer the chicken to the pasta. But is your ultimate goal hammering her with how right you are or having a relationship? If it’s a relationship you’re after, you need to keep her fight-or-flight defensiveness from whirring into action by transforming accusations (like “You’re rude!”) into information (like reasons the term “waiting” shouldn’t be taken literally). For example, you could say, “Hey, I know you love good food and don’t want to make a bad choice at dinner. But I was thinking that when the server waits for a while at our table, he may feel we don’t respect his time, and other customers may feel neglected and leave him a crappy tip.”
By asking her to sympathize with the waiter instead of telling her what a jerk she’s been, you help her stay cool enough in the head to consider potential solutions – like doing a little online menu recon before hitting the restaurant. If you both start sending criticisms up for processing to the kindness and tact department, you could get in the habit of “accepting influence” from each other – listening to each other and becoming better individually and together – a practice marriage researcher John Gottman sees in the happiest, most stable relationships. Think of this as living the dream – the one where your relationship is a safe place to expose the real you (as opposed to that dream where you’re back in 10th grade standing naked in front of the school assembly just as your mom starts reading your diary over the PA).
(c) 2014, Amy Alkon, all rights reserved. Got a problem? Write Amy Alkon, 171 Pier Ave, #280, Santa Monica, CA 90405, or e-mail AdviceAmy@aol.com (advicegoddess.com). Weekly radio show: blogtalkradio.com/amyalkon