A Way to Relate to Difficult People

Say Zen
4 min readSep 6, 2023
Photo by Tim Gouw on Unsplash

Once when I still lived in Vancouver, Canada, I was walking down the sidewalk on Burrard, in the financial district where I worked at the time, with my friend Betty. It was a really wide sidewalk, and I guess without realizing it, we were walking in the middle of it, side by side. There was still lots of room on either side of us for people to walk. But all of a sudden, a random man started screaming at us for carelessly walking down the middle of the sidewalk. We’d been having a lowkey and pleasant evening, so this was incredibly weird and jarring.

I need to point out that this wasn’t someone living on the street or someone who seemed to be having a mental health episode — just some regular, relatively well dressed, normal looking middle aged white guy, who happened to be very angry. Neither one of us is (I don’t think) a particularly confrontational or conflict-prone person, and if this guy had simply pointed out that we were walking down the middle of the sidewalk, potentially forcing other pedestrians to the edges of it, I’m sure we would have apologized and moved more to one side. But he didn’t.

The event was so shocking that I told my friend Will about it, laughingly, the next day. I didn’t understand why this man had been so irate with us, two people he didn’t know, over an offense so seemingly miniscule as to be basically nonexistent. “That’s easy,” Will said: “he was in hell.” That was five or six years ago now, but I think about that answer to this day. To get that angry over something so small at people you don’t even know is to truly have no control over what you’ do — like being possessed. And that is like being in hell.

No, This is Not Water

There’s a lot of advice out there (most famously, from the late, great writer David Foster Wallace in his very moving “This is Water” speech) about how the best way to respond to a rude or difficult stranger is to imagine that they could be having a really bad day. Maybe this person yelling at you on the sidewalk, or cutting you off on the highway, or whatever, actually just lost their job, or is trying to process the news that their partner was just diagnosed with cancer. By considering the suffering that this person might be going through, this line of thinking goes, we can muster some compassion for and patience…