It’s not about the poop

Like many of you, my wife and I live in a neighborhood where many people have pet dogs. Unfortunately, we also have a lot of squirrels. And the occasional possum. Or coyote. Or egret (seriously). That means a lot of barking, at any time of the day or night. We also see neighbors walking their dogs; they may even have two or three dogs out at a time.

So imagine with me that you walk out of your house one fine sunny morning, and find what looks like a pile of dog poop in your front yard.

How do you react?

Maybe you feel disgust at the thought of having to clean it up. After all, you’re certainly not going to leave it lying there (if you are, I don’t want to know about it).

But do you also start to get angry?

Suppose your neighbor happens to see you standing there, staring at the mess, and comes out to chat. “Yeah, there was a mangy dog running loose. It didn’t look like it belonged to anybody. There was no leash, no collar, no owner in sight.” How do you respond to this news?

Now imagine instead that your neighbor says, “Yeah, there was this kid with headphones out walking his dog. He stopped to let the dog do his thing on your lawn, but he didn’t seem to care. And when the dog was done, they just kept walking.” How do you respond to that news?

My guess is that in the first scenario, you may be disgusted or frustrated, but are less likely to be angry. In the second scenario, though, you’re more likely to get mad. You might even envision that teenager and start carrying on about what’s wrong with young people these days.

Why the difference?

Let’s start with this: it’s not just about the poop.

You may not like the idea of stray dogs running loose in the neighborhood. But you don’t expect a stray to obey human rules of decorum.

A dog on a leash, however, has an owner who’s supposed to know better. In that scenario, the poop is the occasion for your anger, but not the sole cause of it. You are angry at what you take as the irresponsibility of the owner. And you may be doubly angry if you think of the owner as being a member of a group that you already believe to be irresponsible in general. It’s one thing to envision an oblivious teen as the culprit; it’s another to envision a frail 90-year-old, shuffling along slowly and painfully with a walker.

What would you say to the teen? You could point at the mess and shout, “That’s disgusting!” And he (for some reason, I’m imagining a young man here) says, “Right, totally!” and then walks away with a breezy goodbye. Are you satisfied with that answer? He agreed that it was disgusting; isn’t that enough? Of course not: you want him to do something about it, to apologize, take responsibility, and clean it up.

It’s about the poop, but it’s not just about the poop.

Here’s my point. You may have been offended by something another person did, and then became angry, and then found yourself tangled in an argument that went nowhere. Ask yourself: were you arguing about the “poop” — whatever provided the occasion for the offense — or about the underlying reason why you were upset about it?

Picture a parent yelling at a teenager: “How many times do I have to tell you to put your dirty dishes in the dishwasher?”

Is it about the dishes? Well, yes; the parent may prize a sense of order and hate seeing dishes lying around. But  the parent may also be thinking, “What’s the matter with my kid? Why is he so irresponsible? I’ll bet the kid next door doesn’t do that.” Or, “Nobody cares about keeping this house livable except me.” Or, “What, am I your slave?”

At one level, then, it’s about the dirty dishes. At another level, it’s about feeling frustrated and inadequate as a parent, unappreciated, or taken advantage of and thus demeaned. Perceived rules of fairness or decency have been violated, and we want the other person to do something about it. We don’t just want our kids to put the dishes in the dishwasher (though that would be lovely). We want them to say, “Sorry. I know how important that is to you, and I’m really working on being more responsible. I’ll take care of it immediately. Thanks for being patient with me.”

Er, right. Somebody call an ambulance.

But even if that little fantasy never comes true, we’ll never get anywhere near it if all we do is yell about the dishes. We have to know why it’s a problem for us, and communicate that: “When you keep leaving your dirty dishes lying around like that, I get really frustrated! I feel unappreciated, as if no one around here realizes how much I do.”

I know; it may be hard imagining yourself saying something like that. There’s no cosmic rule that says you have to.

But then again, you might just find yourself stuck fighting about the poop.