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Kerrying On

Kerrying On: Play It Forward

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You can’t live in a community nowadays without it happening to you once in a while. Of course, how you respond to the assault depends on where you reside. Comedian David Brenner describes the difference in approach. He says that if you live on the east coast, you say something snide and tell the offender to beat it. If you live out west, you turn to the person you’re with and complain under your breath. But you never say anything directly to the offender.

And what is this crime we’ve all suffered? Line cutting. You’re patiently waiting your turn to buy tickets when suddenly, a selfish cur has the nerve to violate all that is good and proper and cuts in front of you—as if you’re not even there. Do these people think they’re better than you? Maybe their time is more important than yours. Is that it? These are the things you think to yourself if you live in Seattle. If you live in New York, you shout these words to inconsiderate line cutters.

I live in the west where, if Brenner’s right, we mostly stay mum—but not because we’re nice or gentle. The people I know clam up because they don’t want to appear rude or break any social norms. In extreme cases, they don’t like the odds they’re facing. Anyone brazen enough to cut in line might also be aggressive enough to punch you in the nose should you point out their peccadillo—although I’m fairly sure those who do speak their minds don’t use the word “peccadillo.”

So here’s the big question: Is there a reasonable way to deal with people who violate social norms such as line cutting? Surely there’s an effective strategy that falls somewhere between the violence of name-calling and the silence of whispering insults. And if there is, could the average person learn the method and then teach it to others?

These were the questions I wanted to answer as I gathered a group of grad students to work on a research project back in the fall of 1980. To kick off our study, we established a base-line measure. We would cut into a variety of lines and observe what people actually did. The very first day we cut into fifty different lines and nobody said a word. People made faces or quietly complained to the person next to them, but nobody actually confronted the line cutter.

Having established that our neighbors were unwilling to speak up to a norm-breaking stranger, we moved ahead with our study. For the next phase we placed a graduate student from our research team in a line. After fifteen minutes, another grad student (also from our team) cut in front of the first student. Our confederate in the queue then abruptly said, “Hey bozo, don’t butt into line! The end’s back there” (pointing menacingly toward the back). After this short, terse comment, the line-cutting grad student apologized and headed to the back of the line.

Now for the interesting part. We’d wait five minutes and then cut in front of the person who had been standing directly behind our outspoken grad student. Would the research subject mimic the direct, although somewhat obnoxious script he or she had just seen? We had demonstrated an interaction that worked. The crass line cutter went to the back of the line. Would such results, despite the abrasive nature of the script, embolden the observer?

In a word, no. Our grad student told the “bozo” to get to the end of the line fifty times and in fifty different locations—but not one person who observed the interaction spoke up. As we had hypothesized, the moderately violent approach we had demonstrated was exactly what people were trying to avoid. They didn’t want to act and look rude, so they remained silent.

Next we repeated the experiment, only this time we armed the grad student standing in line with a more socially acceptable script. Our research confederate stated politely, “I’m sorry. Perhaps you’re unaware. We’ve been standing in line for over fifteen minutes.” As before, the line cutter apologized and went to the end of the line. Once again, we waited five minutes and then cut in front of the person who had just observed the interaction.

Did the more pleasant script provide an alternative the research subjects standing in line would actually use? Drum roll please.

It certainly did. Eighty-five percent of the time, the subject who had observed the more pleasant script spoke up—usually using the exact words he or she had heard: “I’m sorry, perhaps you’re unaware. We’ve been standing in line for over fifteen minutes.” When provided with a healthy alternative to silence or violence, research subjects embraced the new script and used it the first chance they had.

As this study shows, people can and do learn new scripts by observing others in action. In fact, it’s how we learn just about everything we say and do in social settings. However, unlike our line-cutting study, social scripts are rarely taught purposefully and directly. But what if this were to change? What if this year, each of us, along with our promise to get fit or stop spending so much, vowed to teach our friends, children, and direct reports effective interpersonal scripts?

For instance, a person who reports to you cares deeply about a recent change in policy. She brings up her opinion in your weekly team meeting. As she expresses her view she pushes too hard. She overstates her position, uses inflammatory language, insults those who disagree with her, and otherwise turns the group against her.

As her leader, this provides you with a wonderful chance to offer individual coaching. At the end of the meeting you talk directly with your direct report about her stance and how you supported her view—right up until the point she called everyone who disagreed with her a cretin. You explain how her approach actually turned people against her. And then you role-play the scene again—only using more effective skills. Under your careful coaching, your direct report tentatively states her view by using terms such as “perhaps,” and “I wonder.” Equally important, she asks others for their point of view and then listens.

Let’s extend this recommendation. What if you and a million other people vowed to do the same thing? That is, they agree to “play it forward”? They don’t pay it forward—it’s not an act of service that can be passed on to others, but they play it forward—it’s a social skill that can be done in acts under the guidance of a director. People conduct mini-plays where they model effective social behavior—exemplifying skills that fall between silence and violence. Equally important, when someone they know and love moves to either silence or violence, they sit down with the offending party and play out the script in a new, more effective way.

Just think about the possible impact. For instance, what if parents modeled and practiced interpersonal skills with their offspring a thousand times before their kids hit puberty? Imagine, if in addition to driving their kids to gymnastics and oboe lessons, parents built social instruction into their daily conversation—just as often, just as seriously, and just as skillfully as someone teaching music lessons? What would the world be like if part of growing up was growing socially wise?

Now all of this playing it forward would be unnecessary if we were actually skilled at speaking our mind. And maybe we are. After all, it’s been thirty years since we completed our original line-cutting research, right?

To see where we stand today, Joseph Grenny’s son replicated the study a couple years back and uncovered the same discouraging results. Nobody said anything when the ten-year-old cut in front of people standing in line. Since he was so young and people might have been reluctant to speak up to someone so small and vulnerable, he eventually asked his mom to butt in line for him. After twenty-five cases where nobody uttered a word, finally a woman tapped our research mother on the shoulder and spoke her piece.

“Who does your hair?” she asked with a smile.

It seems conclusive. When confronted by inappropriate behavior we either blow up or clam up.

But it doesn’t have to be that way. We don’t have to choose between two unhealthy options. Not if we play it forward.

30 thoughts on “Kerrying On: Play It Forward”

  1. Rock Davidson

    Wow! I find this a very interesting article. I am one on the West Coast who normally stays mum — but a storm is brewing in my mind. “Play it forward” is a great idea and may stem the tide of indifference that seems to be growing about respect to each other.

  2. Paul Therrien

    The behavioural description of blowing up or claming up is quite appropriate. Given the flight or fight response inate in every human being are we not swimming upstream? I agree that we can all learn new skills but wonder if we are not at the same time masking our true nature?

  3. Steve Bauman

    Kerry, I always look forward to your columns. This one was particularly inspiring, in addition to being beautifully written. Thank you

  4. Darlene Harbick

    Excellent article. Not only is it interesting and thought provoking, and applicable to many different situations, but it gave me a script to use on line-cutters.

  5. Donald Hinkson

    Good day and thank you for an excellent read.

    My comments are around my concern that society is too concerned about being politically correct (PC), some may hold out that PC is a curse.

    At same time, I concur with the insight (of my RN and 2nd degree black belt in kenpo karate training) that most people will do most anything or endure most anything to avoid conflict:confrontation.

    In addition, this subject matter is very important in our diverse community of America where I find myself generalizing and becoming prejudice about certain cultures who seemingly do not feel need to be socially adept.

    These points made, I believe this read offers hope of adaptive solutions for crucial conversations and socially challenging situations.


  6. Adam Tonnos

    Is anyone interested in pursuing the development of a program that would help anyone dealing with children to integrate this set of social skills. Has anyone worked with a program of this nature in the past? I have noticed a theme in several books where authors are very keen to pass on what they have learned to the next generation. I have only heard about some private schools acting on these initiatives.

  7. derek

    We discussed this issue and experiement in our Crucial Confrontations class recently.There, as now, I find a significant flaw in the example, though not necessarily in the general idea.

    If I am waiting in line with my wife and child, I am almost totally unlikely to say anything for one simple reason: the very small potential benefit (being one place ahead in line) is totally outweighed by the remote but most serious potential consequence (violence directed towards my family). Although I am likely armed while in line with my family, I see no benefit to provoking a situation where I might need to use my weapon. One reason you might observe that people tend to be more circumspect in the “west” is that with only a handful of exceptions, every state west of the Mississippi has very liberal concealed weapons and firearm laws. “An armed society is a polite society. Manners are good when one may have to back up his acts with his life” (R. Heinlein).

    I find value in the experiement and suspect there are many instances where the lessons learned can be safely applied. However, I won’t be trying it in public lines.

  8. Nirvana Cable

    Kerry, I adore your storytelling. Fascinating study results. Thanks.

  9. B. Ruttan

    Interesting article. Any thoughts on cars cuttting into line and “road rage”?

  10. Sue Holloway

    During a family visit over the weekend, my brother and sister who are Jehovah Witnesses gathered at the dining room table to review their Awake newsletter. My mother, a Catholic, was invited to join them. I stayed in the family room. Another brother who is interested in the Hindu religion sat down with them later. I think you know where this is going. Yes, a huge argument erupted between the brothers. It got very heated and lasted several minutes with red faces, yelling, gesturing. I am sure neither of the brothers who hadn’t seen each other in several years (one lives in Hawaii) wanted this outcome. Instead of an interesting dialogue where each could learn a little more about the other, it became a power play over defending their beliefs…the typical, “I’m right” fight. I tried to calm down the situation, another sister tried to calm down the situation and another sister who was napping upstairs, joined and added her frustration. Through this, I kept thinking of the crucial conversations tools to bring some way for my brother Tom to deal better with these type of situations. I intend to forward the Kerrying On Play It Forward article and giving him the book.

  11. Chris

    THis sounds perfect. I was so relieved that the positive modeling did the trick…but as I read your real work-life example, I got a little nervous, perhaps becuase of the pronouns…Women are always couching their comments with “up endings” and “I wonder what would happen if” – softening their approach, sometimes to the point where the point is lost. If a man expressed himself the same way, he would be lauded as strong and direct in many cases. It would be very interesting to also vary the gender in the study you present.

  12. Brenda Scruggs

    Your article stated…”It certainly did. Eighty-five percent of the time, the subject who had observed the more pleasant script spoke up—usually using the exact words he or she had heard: “I’m sorry, perhaps you’re unaware. We’ve been standing in line for over fifteen minutes.” When provided with a healthy alternative to silence or violence, research subjects embraced the new script and used it the first chance they had.”… and I’m curious — did you make note of the response from the line cutter — did any of them move to the back of the line?

  13. Grizzly Bear Mom

    Adam, we need to teach this to adults as well as children. If people knew how unresolved conflicts damaged relationships they would all do so.

    I’m a greater New Yorker and both use and admire the open, honest direct approach. How else can one resolve conflict? I don’t understand why one would triangulate under their breath to the person you don’t have a conflict with? I get much better results having people stop using their cell phones on the quiet train car when I add “MA’AM, this is the quiet car. No cell phones.”

  14. Jean

    Reading your comments, being from Michigan, we get a combination of behaviors. Whereas some people will speak up and some will grumble.
    When I was at the Eiffel Tower in a queue, I noticed one woman from
    UK who took a physical stance for line jumpers. The way she stood with
    her legs farther apart than normal prevented line jumpers which I have never observer anywhere else. My personal way would be to mention to the line jumper that where the line started.

  15. Michele

    It would be interesting to repeat this experiment in reverse in an East Coast city where the approach (and culture) is different. I think an important element of effectively communicating and standing up for one’s rights as it were (to not be cut in front of) is to understand the prevailing culture, or even the style of the group you are addressing so that your message is heard. This comes from experiences working with folks in Europe, who I find to have a much more direct communication style.

  16. Kathy

    Hi Kerry, I really enjoyed your article. On an airline trip I took recently – the stewardess took one of the passenger’s bags and placed it in an overhead compartment at the end of the plane (several rows behind the passenger). When we landed – everyone stood up to wait their turn to leave. This passenger proceeded to push and shove trying to get to the back of the plane to retrieve her bag. She made it past 4 rows of passengers before she reached me. I politely asked her to stop and tell me where her bag was. This was followed by “I need my bag – I need to get off to catch my next flight”. When she told me where her bag was – I asked the gentleman, who was standing next to the compartment, to open it to retrieve her bag. Then each passenger passed her bag up until it reached her. Hopefully we all learned that it is easier to work together than push and shove to get things done.

  17. Jarrett

    Interesting article, but it doesn’t seem particularly realistic. I think most of the time we assume, rather reasonably, that the response to a polite script like that would most likely be “I’m sorry, perhaps you’re unaware. I don’t care.”

    It’s not surprising to me people used the script once they’d seen it actually work. But, I’d argue it’s because they knew it would work with THAT skipper. Once they realized THAT skipper wouldn’t blow up or threaten them, they got their courage.

    The real question is, how did they handle it next time, when they weren’t dealing with the same skipper?

  18. Frank

    I always enjoy your columns and often forward them on to my clients. I thought this one was especially outstanding: a great review of key concepts and written in such a wonderfully compelling way! Thanks so much for this column and for all you do to help make the world a better place!

  19. Michelle

    I once had a child butt in front of me in line for a sample of apple pie from Costco. Now we all know how important it is to get samples at Costco and this was apple pie to boot. So I promptly said to the kid “hey it’s my turn not your turn” and he ran away crying to his mother. My mom then got mad at me. And I said “why is it my fault? If his mother won’t teach him manners than I sure as heck will.” But I think if it had been a grown person who could have fought back I probably would have kept my mouth shut.

  20. Robert Sosa

    I had an incident where, while standing in line at the bank, a woman came up to cut in front of me. I said, “Excuse me, but you need to go to the end of the line.” She replied that she had been behind the man in front of me but had to go out to her car and now had returned. When I told her that I had been standing in line for fifteen minutes and she had NOT been there; she looked at my ID badge and retorted with “You are acting rude and you work at the hospital?” I replied with, “Where I work is irrelevant; here, all I am is a bank customer and as rude as YOU are, you are still not cutting in line ahead of me!” With no answer to that, she just stared at me and turned around, determined to remain where she was. The person in front of her never vouched for her presence in line and my wife nudged me saying to let her remain where she was as she had proven herself to be a rude and obnoxious person to all around us. I failed to see the object lesson of that, if she remained in line ahead of us, but while I was talking to my wife the line moved up and she scooted to the next available teller! Of course, not without my semi-quiet muttering….

  21. Brian Taylor

    We call it “queue-jumping” in Australia, Kerry, and it is one of the most annoying public behaviours that people can exhibit. I have to confess that, even as a CC Facilitator, my first reaction and burning desire is to tee-off at these offenders and give them a real blast. Your technique is a much better action to take. It contains a few elements of the STATE skills used in a short-cut way. I used to use it and teach it myself as a way of extending empathy to other people and I found that it always had a positive effect on the interaction. The use of this approach that I remember most though was not used by me. Years ago I was waiting to be served in a packed post office when a fellow came in and inadvertently stepped in right at the front of the line. You could feel the whole crowd bristle at his action. The man waiting behind him immediately tapped him on the shoulder and I thought that he was going to give the “criminal” the telling-off he deserved. Instead, he assertively, politely and tentatively pointed out the error that had been committed and the offender went to the back of the queue with his dignity intact and the rest of us returned to a normal state of impatience.
    It gave me two insights – firstly, that the approach you recommend does work – and secondly, watching someone else use a skill effectively is one of the most powerful ways to learn.
    Thanks for your article.
    Brian Taylor

  22. Tweets that mention Crucial Skills » Kerrying On: Play It Forward --

    […] This post was mentioned on Twitter by Joseph Grenny, CrucialConversations. CrucialConversations said: Kerrying On: Play It Forward: ABOUT THE AUTHOR Kerry Patterson is author of three bestselling books, Influencer, C… […]

  23. Luther Gaylord

    I wonder if, perhaps, people who feel the need to temper their criticisms and neuter their opinions with words like “I wonder” and “perhaps” are the same people who are unwilling to challenge the status quo. (The answer is “yes”.)

    I totally disagree with Kerry Patterson that confrontation or name-calling = violence. People who cut in line DESERVE to be called bozos or worse. If others are too sheepish to follow my example of frankness and directness, that’s their problem — not mine.

    Perhaps it is more EFFECTIVE to treat people with kid gloves (“You’ll catch more flies with honey than with vinegar”) but I’m just not inclined.

    And who is to say that woman in Patterson’s example really did “push too hard” in opposing the policy change? So what if she called her opponents cretins? Maybe they ARE cretins. Doesn’t it depend almost entirely on what the policy change was and how it was going to affect the workers? She was painted as a hothead, but maybe she was the only one with balls enough to speak up.

    It seems to me that Patterson’s message of “politeness” comes directly from the ruling class. It translates to “Know your place, prole.”


    As Owen thought of his child’s future there sprung up within him a feeling of hatred and fury against the majority of his fellow workmen.

    They were the enemy. Those who not only quietly submitted like so many cattle to the existing state of things, but defended it, and opposed and ridiculed any suggestion to alter it.

    They were the real oppressors — the men who spoke of themselves as “The likes of us,” who, having lived in poverty and degradation all their lives considered that what had been good enough for them was good enough for the children they had been the cause of bringing into existence.

    He hated and despised them because they calmly saw their children condemned to hard labour and poverty for life, and deliberately refused to make any effort to secure for them better conditions than those they had themselves.

    It was because they were indifferent to the fate of their children that he would be unable to secure a natural and human life for his. It was their apathy or active opposition that made it impossible to establish a better system of society under which those who did their fair share of the world’s work would be honoured and rewarded. Instead of helping to do this, they abased themselves, and grovelled before their oppressors, and compelled and taught their children to do the same. They were the people who were really responsible for the continuance of the present system.

  24. David Pettengill

    Superb dissertation Kerry.

    Your insight presents a great opportunity for enhanced parenting which is much needed in our world. Please encourage research and production of programs to help those interested implement this teaching. How to manuals with practice scenarios for example. This goes way beyond just someone cutting in line.

    Thank-you for choosing to be extraordinary,
    David Pettengill

  25. SLCCOM

    I have a profound problem with the supervisor teaching a woman to say “I wonder” and “perhaps.” This tentativeness is precisely why so many women find their ideas being ignored until they are stolen by a man and restated. If the supervisor had instead suggested saying using assertive language, such as “I believe” and “I observe” and “My reason for this is” and advised against losing her temper, she would learn to be an effective advocate instead of an indecisive, wishy-washy pushover.

  26. Grizzly Bear Mom

    As a greter New Yorker I coach saying something. At least you gave them an opportunity to prove they weren’t a jerk.

  27. bean sagof

    “What would the world be like if part of growing up was growing socially wise?”
    amen, brotha. i thought for a long time that was standard until i noticed even adults acting like children in social situations. while i think it borders social engineering and is thus a skill to be careful/loving/graceful with, it seems to have the potential of a majorly progressive step. as a parent-to-be i have kept a journal of tidbits of social situations that flummox me and what i would like for my children to see in them.
    thankyou for your thoughts and that thrilling research idea: i’m saving them for posterity,
    b s

  28. Cheryl Stinski

    Thanks for an excellent article! I would only add: 1) this approach creates the likelihood that the person will actually hear your concern instead of just becoming defensive and fighting back; 2) wouldn’t it be wonderful if schools also taught students the fine art of communicating how to speak their minds in a way that is respectful by sticking to the facts and avoiding assumptions about another person or their motiviation; and 3)as parents and teachers we can never forget the need to practice what we teach, including when addressing bad behavior in our children. This is not a pussyfoot approach – it takes great courage and maturity to choose our response when we believe we’ve been wronged, rather than reacting out of our emotions. You can bet I’ll be playing this forward early on with my soon to arrive grandchild – and encouraging her parents to do the same.

  29. Jessie Mae Hendrickson

    Well said! I have already started implementing what I learned in class with my son who is six now. It works as designed no matter what the age. In teaching him how to socialize more I demonstrated how to introduce yourself to someone and initiate conversation. I did this with adults in front of him though. So then first chance he got I saw him reinact what he saw me do with a small girl on the play ground. He went right up to her and said, “Hello. My name is John Paul. I am so happy to see you here! What’s your name?” with an outstretched hand. She was a little leary but she did take his hand, shook it, and introduced herself. Then they played together.

  30. Barry Becker

    Kerry, I thought your response to Perplexed regarding the tendency to exaggerate the down-sides of speaking up was well said. I first read of the concept of “inflating the likelihood of negative consequences” termed “Negative Fantasies” by Jerry Harvey in his now famous Abilene Paradox article in HBR over 35 years ago. I guess many of the the basic challenges to effective behavior never change…

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