Someone I used to know was having a problem with her two kids. They were about 2-3 years apart in age, with the boy being the older; they were roughly 9 and 6. The problem was that the boy was constantly hitting his little sister (specifically, slapping). No matter what punishment the parents levied, the boy simply would not stop, and he protested every punishment as unfair.
One day, this mom overheard her two kids arguing in the playroom, and fearing it might lead to another slapping incident, went to step in. However, the kids were arguing loudly enough that she inadvertently snuck up on them, with neither being aware that their parent was just outside the doorway.
So imagine her shock when her six-year-old girl smugly ended the argument by clapping her hands loudly a single time and then instantly bursting into very convincing waterworks and yelling “Mooooooom! He slapped me again!”
Turns out, every instance was faked. Punishments weren’t correcting the son’s behavior because he wasn’t actually striking his sister, and his protestations that he was innocent were actually true. The mom looked back and realized she had never actually once witnessed the incident herself, she’d just trusted the claims made by the sister (supported by some convincing sound effects!).
There are plenty of parenting lessons there, but today isn’t a parenting blog post. It’s a post about sources.
Because we all, at various stages, make the mistake the mom made. We take a reaction to something as evidence that the “something” happened. Now, I’m not saying all reactions are fake or malicious. But they’re not good primary sources for a lot of reasons.
Social signaling is a real thing. We have a thousand things putting pressure on us to react in different ways to different things. Even without that, people over- or under-react. And even those terms assume there’s a baseline “correct” way to feel about something, but of course there isn’t.
Back when I was managing salespeople in the financial industry, I once fielded an escalation call where a customer felt she’d been wildly disrespected. The way she was yelling and almost sobbing would give you the impression that the rep she’d been speaking with had dug up her mother’s grave. She wasn’t faking, either – she was clearly very genuinely upset! So naturally I wanted to help as much as I could, so I asked if she’d mind if I pulled up the recording of the call to review while she was on the line.
The rep had… wait for it… slightly mispronounced her surname.
That was literally it – the recording of the call wasn’t more than 15 seconds; she’d answered, he’d asked if Mr. Surname was available (our client), and she’d lost her top. Now, being the diplomatic manager that I was, I didn’t push back against a hysterical woman, I just engaged her in some dialogue and it turned out that Mr. Surname was actually in the hospital, it was pretty serious, she was stressed out of her mind, and he normally took care of this sort of thing and so on top of everything else just hearing an unfamiliar voice ask for him was the straw that broke the camel’s back.
We resolved it, everything was fine. But what was important in that moment was to realize that in no universe would it have been correct to give her reaction any sort of weight in my decision on how to handle my employee. Her reaction was genuine from her perspective, but just because she reacted as if he’d run over her dog didn’t mean he’d actually done that.
We are especially susceptible to this when we don’t have access to the primary source. We see people’s reactions to political speeches and agree or disagree with the reactions based on a lot of things, but “going and listening to the original speech in its entirety” isn’t usually one of them. We hear a loved one complain about a relationship and get mad on their behalf, even though we’ve never even met the significant other and certainly weren’t present for the event being described.
This isn’t to say you shouldn’t trust people. You have to, to a degree. It’s good to believe someone when you first hear their reaction, in the sense that you accept their reaction as genuine and the feelings they’re feeling as valid. But before you act on that belief, especially in a way that’s going to impact others, you need to dig into it a little yourself.
People say “ouch” for all sorts of reasons, and not all of them are because they got hit.