When a quiet lunch goes wrong in a public place

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Irritability can sometimes come out of nowhere and ruin a perfectly good day. I recently had the experience with someone who was triggered by the totally innocent and absent-minded behaviour of someone else – a complete stranger:  the signs of agitation were there. She vocalised it “if that guy doesn’t stop playing with his ice I’m going to have to do something.”  

I looked up, and yes indeed at the next table there was a man stirring the ice in his glass of water around and around and around, while chatting to the person opposite him.  They were waiting for their food order in a pretty empty family restaurant.

Perhaps the first warning sign was when the group of four came to sit at the table just opposite the aisle from our booth at the window.   She said “the entire place is empty – you’d think they could sit somewhere other than right on top of us?”  


I didn’t recognise it as a signal; I thought it was a social comment on how strange the choices are that people make when confronted by a virtually empty large restaurant with huge TV screens on three walls and bland impersonal decor. It could have been the waiting area in an airport.   It could have been that this party of four aren’t comfortable with wide open spaces and would derive some comfort from our reassuring, clearly relaxed and confident presence.

I was astonished at the rapidity of the escalation of irritation and action, however.  

While I had registered her declaration of intent if the man didn’t stop playing with his ice, it called to mind that she had snapped at a mutual friend some time ago, for fiddling with a nail on the cross-bar on my deck.   Before I could complete that recollection she was up, out of her bench seat in the booth, and at the next table, leaning into the man’s face and presumably asking him to stop it.   I could see from his face as she walked back to our table that he was astonished and puzzled.  I wondered what she’d said.  

The woman sitting next to the ice man declared in a slightly louder voice than one would use in polite Canadian conversation that it was a ‘bloody cheek’.  “Oh dear,” I thought, “I wonder what’s going to happen next?”

I didn’t have long to wait.  She reached over and took the man’s glass and virtually wrenched his spoon from his grip.  “Oh dear,” I thought.  She started stirring the ice, clinking the spoon loudly against the glass.  I wondered whether I should do something.

The thing about being older is that your brain delves more deeply before it arrives at conclusions and decisions. The result, so research tells us, is that older people generally make better decisions than younger people (I think ‘older’ is perhaps over  60 and ‘younger’ is under 35, but I may be guessing).  The down-side of this was that, as I arrived at a decision to suggest to my friend that we find some way of avoiding acknowledgement of this woman’s determination to escalate the conflict she (my friend) said, almost shouted, “Are you having fun doing that?  Very mature, isn’t it?”  

The temperature in our corner of the restaurant went up to sizzling steak level in the blink of an eye.   The woman clinked more loudly and expressed further views in an even louder voice.  The couple opposite them, sharing their table, muttered softly and made fluttering and ineffectual movements with their hands.

I concluded that I could contribute nothing to reduce the tension – by sitting with my friend and obviously having a meal with her I was clearly in her camp, by association. No neutral third party role for me here, so better to keep a low profile.  My friend explained to me that she suffers from fibromyalgia and that makes her exceptionally sensitive to noise.  A lightbulb went on for me.  I have another friend who is sensitive to noise and …I started saying “Z, the noise is going to continue, let’s move to another table. Let’s not say anything else”, but she was out of her sear. I went deaf. I don’t recall what she said next. But I DO recall the man threatening her.

“Oh dear,” I thought.   “He’s going to hit her.”  


Like an angel from heaven the waitress appeared:

we had a neutral third party with status and authority.   


She addressed herself to the foursome across the aisle:  “I’d like to offer you a really comfortable booth over there” ( pointing to the far end of restaurant). “Here, let me help you with your dishes.”  She took the glass with the spoon and the remnants of the stirred ice from the angry woman’s hand and carried it toward the vacant booth.  They all got up meekly and followed her.  They settled down.   My friend described how her adrenalin was slowly dissipating and got back into her meal.  

We thanked the waitress who very astutely avoided any discussion about the merits of the incident.   It didn’t matter who started it. What mattered was that it was de-escalated and potential violence – maybe even assault – was avoided.   

Although there was a mutually acceptable solution, there had been no improvement of mutual understanding; no shared responsibility for selecting the best solution; and certainly no potential for building a relationship.  I subsequently wondered if,  should one be able to get these two women in a mediation room a day or a week later, to explore their mutual interests in a safe and respectful way, would they come out of it any better off than they were on the afternoon of the incident?

My friend would still have her fibromyalgia. Maybe the other woman would understand that and be more sensitive in future to requests for non-clanking of ice and spoons.  Maybe my friend would come to understand why the woman was so angry – maybe she’s particularly protective of her husband and hated him being embarrassed by my friend’s request.   But of course for mediation to work both parties need to agree to the mediation process and the mediator, and they have to be willing to change in at least some small way.   Maybe they would have been ready for such an intervention, but maybe it is one of those things that you walk away from?


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