How do you talk to someone who looks and sounds very different from you?
He is white, big, loud, with a big dog. I am Chinese, petite and a woman.
On this morning around 7:20 am, we were in the same room. It was my choice to put myself in that place to confront someone talking extremely loudly, as if trying to win votes on a campaign trail.
It was just fifteen minutes into my yoga class (Vinyasa Flow) when all of us heard something. It sounded like a group of guys talking or debating, and the noise was just behind a paper-thin room divider. It went on and on until it got on my nerves and I lost concentration. I kept losing my balance. I looked up to our yoga teacher and the other yogi next to me. They kept going, but I couldn’t. I finally spoke up and pleaded for intervention.
“I’m sorry, but I’m getting distracted.”
Even before I finished my sentence, “Yes, I know…”, Miriam, my yoga teacher cut in. “That happens a lot. Unfortunately, there’s nothing I can do about it. I’ll talk to Jess (the receptionist) after class.”
“Nothing? Really? After class? We have another 45 minutes to go…!”
I was grumbling inside. More importantly, I disagreed that there was nothing she could do. Perhaps she’s afraid of confronting people? Especially if it sounded like someone who could overpower her? Whatever that was, I was bent on solving this problem.
I thought we had the right to expect a calm and quiet environment for our morning practice – it’s a yoga studio! So, I decided to try to talk to the noise-maker.
I stepped outside to the lounge and was stunned to see a brawny, burly, and husky man hyperventilating on the phone. The minute his big dog saw me coming at them with a feistily female energy, I stopped. (I’m scared of big dogs!) He also stopped talking.
“Excuse me. I’m sorry to interrupt, but we have a yoga class going on. We can hear your every word…”
His big green eyes immediately enlarged to a cold stare straight into mine just before I was about to switch from my firm tone to a softer touch….
“Is it possible that… you just tone it down a bit?”
I even used sign language for “Timeout, cupping my hands in a prayer pose across my chest to convey “Please. Peace. Quiet. Thank you.” I held my eye contact steady with him for a second, waiting for his understanding. He remained silent for another second before nodding, smiling and even showing a hint of remorse in his eyes.
“Thank you. Thank you.” I quickly tip-toed back to yoga practice.
“Did you talk to him?” my yoga teacher wondered.
“Good for you. It’s hard for me because I’m the teacher. People get offended.”
I reacted internally, but did not talk back. I had regained my concentration, I had accomplished my goal, and I wanted to finish the class well. That’s what matters to me – begin and finish my practice well.
But after class, Miriam said “Good for you. I’m glad you spoke to him. It’s hard for me.”
“It’s alright. He’s not threatening, he’s just loud. He just didn’t know. He just didn’t know – we have a class and we follow a certain etiquette.” Miriam smiled, so did my fellow yogi.
I thought about what makes it hard for Miriam to intervene or to talk to someone who’s doing something inappropriate. She used the word “offended” as a given reason. I saw it differently.
I just thought certain behaviors make sense from a certain vantage point or position. From the loud man’s position, he just didn’t know better. He wasn’t intentionally trying to hurt our class; he was simply clueless how his actions affected his neighbors, us yogis – next door – practising vinyasa flow.
Often we suffer in silence or fear the worst when all we need to do is to talk with a firm tone and a light touch. Instead of one tone – hard and harsh, or hitting people over the head, (which I confess I still do, though not frequently) we can mix our tone and tenor with warm and sincere eye contact. That often turns down the heat – whether it’s loud sound or rude behavior.
Try it! Spread it around. In the face of someone who looks and sounds very different from us, we can still keep our cool and our warmth, and modify or modulate our tone so as to create a common space that allows for differences.