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Earlier today I sat in a tiny conference room to watch a terrifying academic ritual.
A friend of mine was defending her dissertation.
If you’re not familiar with this perfunctory yet dreadful academic rite of passage, a PhD candidate essentially has to give a presentation about their research and conclusions, then endure an hour or more of grueling, nitpicking questioning from a stern committee.
The committee then sends them out of the room and decides whether or not the candidate can actually get the degree they’ve spent a decade or so of their life pursuing.
You know, no big deal.
Anyway, I arrived quite early and sat near the door of the small room. My friend asked me to save a seat for an expected latecomer, so I set my bag and coat on the neighboring chair.
But the latecomer never came.
And as others entered, I felt like everyone was looking at me askance for taking up two seats when space was at such a premium. It felt like I could read their thoughts:
“Why is she putting her stuff on that chair when we’re all elbow-to-elbow? Doesn’t she know that there aren’t enough seats in here and that’s a prime spot? Why can’t she just put that stuff under her chair like everyone else?”
I wanted to yell “I swear, it’s for a real person! The candidate asked me to do this!”
But I didn’t yell. I just sat there feeling silently guilted, like one of those obnoxious people on a Southwest flight who throws all their junk across two seats to get the row to themselves.
It’s possible this was all just in my head, of course.
Maybe they passed by without a second thought.
But it FELT awful, and frankly, I had a good reason for my suspicions. Because:
People are, by and large, more likely to make assumptions about a person’s character rather than consider the external situation.
In plain English? People are faster to assume that you’re a space-hogging hoggy hog than assume “oh, someone must have asked her to save that seat.”
People are faster to assume you have mustard on your shirt because you were sloppy than because you threw down your hot dog to save a kitten from an oncoming bus.
Or that you’re late to a critical meeting with new people because you’re a tardy lazypants, not because you hit terrible traffic and had an unforseeable delay.
Psychologists call this the “fundamental attribution error.” We tend to quickly assume that when someone does something (especially an unfamiliar someone), it’s because of who they are, not what the circumstances are.
The fundamental attribution error is a bit understandable. After all, people’s behavior is all we really have to discern their character from. And we make most of our evaluations of people without intentionally thinking about it.
It takes more effort to stop, generate circumstantial alternatives, and give someone the benefit of the doubt.
I’m coming around to why this is important for business, but first: There’s something else that makes the fundamental attribution error even more potent:
When we are deciding something, we don’t always look at all the available information and make a reasoned decision.
Rather, we often simply ask “how do I feel about it?” and let our emotions guide our judgment. (Psychologists call this “affect as information” – ‘affect’ essentially referring to emotions or feelings.)
Of course, asking “how do I feel about this?” isn’t necessarily a bad thing. Feelings can result from experience and information just below the surface, stuff that we can’t always readily describe – but that is still important to consider.
But “affect as information” is also one reason why companies use positive music in commercials – they’re hoping that your resulting upbeat, positive mood will transfer onto your opinion of their company, because you’ll mistake your good mood as being about the product rather than the music. And it works.
Additionally, if people feel grumpy because they think I am taking an extra seat, that grumpiness only further solidifies their judgment of me.
They aren’t necessarily going to go to great lengths to look for alternative explanations. They may take their feelings as evidence in making their decision.
Now that you’ve been briefed on the fundamental attribution error (assuming behavior is due to the person’s character and not their situation), and “affect as information” (where your own emotions become a piece of information you judge the world by – for good and for bad)….
….let’s pretend you open your inbox one morning and find the following email from a client:
“Hi, thanks for a great session last night! I need these images this week. Can you send them over?”
How do you react?
And is it the most profitable way to react?
Well, it probably depends.
First, let’s acknowledge that yes, there are real jerks in this world.
People who demand everything for nothing, whine constantly, irritate everyone, and wonder why their images aren’t done 0.28 seconds after they’re snapped.
It is difficult to serve these people, but thankfully, they tend to be in the minority. When you do have the misfortune of encountering one, there are usually multiple red flags that give you a sense for it before you get to this post-session email.
Sometimes people drop the crazy out of the clear blue sky, yeah, but most people are simply more clueless than crazy.
So let’s proceed under the assumption that this was a client who was pretty normal, but they just sent this semi-annoying email.
You may react with irritation: “Can you believe the nerve of these people? Our contract states 4 weeks, and it’s been 24 hours! So ridiculous and rude! Sigh. I guess I need to email back.”
The next time you receive an email like this, consider the fundamental attribution error and affect as information.
And even if it’s just for show, I suggest you take thirty seconds and generate three alternative scenarios why that email could have been sent other than “they’re ridiculous and rude.”
1. Maybe they typed that email with one finger while breastfeeding an infant while trying to tell their four-year-old to stop smearing peanut butter on the window while trying to plan out their Christmas card order, and they didn’t really think through how the email would come across.
2. Maybe they just got off the phone with their mother-in-law and have some really complicated family situation (that frankly you don’t want to hear the details of), but they desparately do need the images, like, an hour ago.
3. Maybe they really meant “Can you send them over?” as a question and not a demand – meaning, they’re just a little lost and they want to know if this is possible. Sometimes people can come off as curt when they’re just confused.
Take a few deep breaths and consider – what might have happened so that they made this request?
When you consider these alternatives, even if they’re made up, you’ll often feel your stomach start to un-knot.
Your fingers unclench the chair arms.
Your blood pressure drops a few points.
Sure, maybe they’re being rude and demanding – but maybe they’re not.
Emails, texts, and even phone calls are completely stripped of all kinds of cues we use for real communication. Body language, eye gaze, facial expressions, mood, context – all gone. Thus, the same sentences can be read multiple ways to begin with.
By imagining alternative reasons other than “they’re a jerk” – you’re also combating the fundamental attribution error and being wary of taking your own reaction as fact, and you’re also more able to reply with a level business head.
And even if they are genuinely being rude – keep in mind that you’re dealing with email. People are known to become disinhibited online – they often say things they don’t really mean, simply because they’re disconnected from the cues and consequences of face to face interaction.
Even when someone writes angrily, I’ve found it productive to mentally dial their words back a few notches.
Because they probably have what I amuse myself by calling Web Headphone Syndrome.
You know how people talk more loudly when they’ve got headphones on, because they can’t hear themselves? Without the feedback of their own voice they can’t hear how loud they are.
When they’re ‘talking’ to a screen, they can’t see my face. They’re cut off from the cues that indicate that their message is already getting across, so sometimes they unwittingly ramp up the snark/anger/sarcasm to be sure they’re being heard. I just picture them looking as silly as someone yelling with headphones on, and it helps me keep a level head when responding.
They probably wouldn’t be like that if they could hear themselves.
But back to those alternative scenarios we generated earlier. After considering a few of those, and taking some deep breaths, here is how I would respond:
“Hey Client! Thanks for your note, I loved the session, too! Yes, it is possible to get the images this week, but we’ll run into rush charges since this week is sooner than our original X week delivery agreement. We can avoid the rush charges by sticking with the original date, or I can deliver them within X business days for $xxx. Let me know! I can’t wait to send them over!”
First, you are telling them “yes” to their request (which they want to hear).
Then instead of slapping an open palm in front of them and demanding money, you’re saying “but we’ll run into rush charges” (my friend John Harrington gave me that little wording gem, and I find it brilliant). Not only does it put you on the same team with “we,” it introduces the idea of a rush fee as a non-intimidating eventuality that they already agreed to.
Finally you reframe the original delivery date as “avoiding” rush charges – and people generally like the idea of not losing money.
I mean, you could respond, “Tough luck, chuck – go read your contract.” But –
At the end of the day, there’s usually little to nothing gained by sending cranky, defensive emails back to clients.
Particularly because we’re vulnerable to the fundamental attribution error, and to using our own emotions as information even when we don’t have all the facts. We have to balance the fact that some people are frustrating with the fact that we’re psychologically vulnerable to taking the words of a non-photographer client to mean something that they might not have intended.
(And even if they were intended, we have the chance to reply with a kind $200 attitude and good business sense.)
So the next time one of these frustrating requests lands in your inbox,
try generating a few plausible reasons why they might be writing this way, and see if it isn’t easier to respond like the awesome businessperson you are.
Let me know how it goes!