Communication Central

How communication with others--and ourselves--leads to success.

Why We Act Out of Character

Adult tantrums and environmental influences.

* I have worked and taught at five colleges and universities. Although this was a real event I will not say where it occurred in order to protect the privacy of the parties involved.


As I walked up the stairway to the second floor I could hear shouting on the outside corridor. The voice was definitely from a woman and it was loud and full of anger. Then I heard a second voice, just above conversational level, but the pace of speech was fast and this woman sounded angry too.

Student: If I see a restroom I am going to use it!

Colleague: That restroom is for faculty and staff only. You can't use it!

Student: I will use any restroom I please. %#$& off!

The hallway, which led to my office, was to the immediate left after you reach the top of the stairs. Before I could make my turn though I could finally see the disagreement that was taking place. It was between one of my colleagues and a student. The student was clearly out of control and would not stop shouting. My colleague was trying to tell her she couldn't keep shouting like she was. I stood there for a few moments observing the pair and thinking that it would soon be over.

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Soon never arrived.

As the student could not seem to calm down and as I was worried about the safety of both parties, I decided to intervene. I slowly walked over to them and said to the student:

Author: "Excuse me Ma'am, please calm down! You can't shout like this in this setting.

Student: She keeps talking to me. So....

Author: I know you are upset, but if you keep shouting like this I will have to call security.

After stating this my colleague said she had already called security and that she was waiting for them to arrive. This prompted another outburst from the student. At this point I walked closer to the side of the student while stepping a few feet away at the same time so I wouldn't appear threatening. I lowered my voice and said:

Author: Listen, she called security and they are on the way. You have to calm down. If they arrive and you are agitated like this you will be the only person affected. They will escort you off the campus and who knows how this will affect your status here.

Student: But she keeps talking to me.

Author: Okay. You've already told her how you feel. So, just don't respond and relax.

The student shook her head and I saw her shoulders go down and she looked away from my colleague. There was no further commotion so I went to my office.

                             -----------------

To many the event described above may seem silly or would make someone wonder why people would get upset over the use of a restroom. But my concern is not the pettiness of an issue because as long as someone makes something an issue, it is one. My concern is how we must always be on the lookout for environmental factors that can cause people to become uncivil in a hurry.

I believe a sign that says "Faculty and Staff" on a ladies' restroom door promotes occurrences like these. There were no keys or codes needed for entry, no ‘guard' in front and the men's bathroom next to it was open to all. The only defense used to keep women, who were not faculty and staff, from using the restroom were the women faculty members.

In my years of working there I saw students enter that restroom quite often and I never said a word. But I had seen many of the women faculty members stop students or visitors from going in or tell them they weren't supposed to use it when they were coming out. The exchanges were mostly tense filled moments and I always felt it was a recipe for disaster.

Psychologist Robert Sommers, Ph.D., and his classic research on personal space discussed the idea of territoriality and dominance. When a new person enters your zone you have to protect or negotiate your territorial rights with that ‘intruder,' whether you want to or not. Further, you have to establish whether you will relate as equals, as a superior to a subordinate or vice versa.

Professors are used to students deferring to them in college classrooms. It is not hard to grasp why they would feel that same courtesy would extend to them as they are walking the halls of their department or in this case, corridor. When the young lady and my colleague clashed it was easy to see what happened. My colleague felt her territory had been violated and her power was being challenged. The student felt as if my colleague was trying to assert a dominance that didn't extend to her and so she 'fought' back. I would also suggest that she thought that venturing into that territory, known as the women's faculty restroom, would be no big deal.

In B.F. Skinner's book, Beyond Freedom and Dignity, he called for examining social and environmental conditions and felt that by changing them we could play a role in lessening violence, crime, joblessness and many other societal ills. Skinner's position was that self-determination and free will could not always be used as a tool to control our behavior and to help us make the best decisions. He posited that environmental changes could promote positive behavior.

It is my contention that minute changes in our environment can also cause chaos if we aren't paying close attention.

Consider this generic example: A lane is blocked off on a road and cars going in both directions have to use the same lane to get by. As drivers are in a hurry to get to their destination they honk, exchange shouts and hostile gestures as they jostle for position. 

On a more personal level, when I was 22, I moved into an apartment complex where everyone was assigned an official parking space. I was informed that if I parked in someone else's spot my car could be towed. The terrible thing about this was that nearly every time I would come home from work or school someone would be parked in my space. I was so worried about my car being towed I spent the first couple of weeks asking people to move their cars. After a lot of angry responses to my requests the manager of the complex informed me that I could have the cars towed and avoid arguments ---- and I did. But, after having a few cars towed I began to feel weird about it.

I thought about it for a long time and realized what the other tenants already knew. There were more than enough spaces for everyone and it was the idea of a personal parking space that was causing me to be a thorn in my neighbors' side. Yes, it was my own ‘personal parking space' but the cost of defending it was too high.

Final Thoughts

I agree; there are things worth protecting. But we also need to pay close attention to small existing environmental constructs, like staff only signs on a restroom door in a high traffic area or unexpected road blocks that may influence us to act ‘out of character' or to overreact.

 Pop PsychologyBakari Akil II, Ph.D. is the author of Pop Psychology - The Psychology of Pop Culture and Everyday Life! You can also check out his page on Twitter.

Bakari Akil II, Ph.D., is an assistant professor of communication at Florida State College of Jacksonville.

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