Most of us, no matter how cool, calm, and collected, have gotten into an argument over something seemingly small. A light was left on, a plate was left in the sink, trash wasn’t dumped, a curse word was said, a question wasn’t answered, a wrong turn was made, the phone wasn’t picked up, we didn’t come home in time, and on and on. There is an infinite number of little reasons to get into an argument. Despite our knowing that we shouldn’t sweat the small stuff, we just can’t seem to let go of some things. Maybe we don’t care, but someone else does? More importantly, is it really just a ‘little thing’?
What Are ‘Little Things’ Really?
Little things are topics that, on their own, typically have no real significance for most people. A light being left on could be considered a little thing; on its own, without any other context, there isn’t a good reason to argue over it. A single plate in the sink with no other context is pretty much irrelevant. No one cares or should care. No arguments or fights should arise if there’s no other related information pertaining to the plate in the sink.
When advice is given to not sweat the small things and let go, often they are considering these little things as having no context of importance. This is somewhat of a dilemma; clearly, if we are fighting about it, someone thinks something about the subject is important.
Little Things With Context
Nothing in this world is without context. The plate in the sink got there somehow, and it could relate to other things in ways we can’t even imagine. To someone, the plate relates to not listening. To another, it translates to a lack of consideration, and to yet another, the plate could be unintended evidence.
Many of us have heard the story about the man on the subway with three extremely rowdy, small children. Everyone is looking at the kids and him wondering why doesn’t he do something about the kids. When the storyteller says to him, “Sir, your children are disturbing a lot of people,” the man looks up as if coming out of a daze and says, “Oh, you’re right. We just came from the hospital where their mother died an hour ago…I guess they don’t know how to handle it either.” (This story is from Stephen Covey in The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People).
For the man in the subway, the rowdy kids were insignificant compared to the loss of his wife and their mother. While this is enlightening and helps us keep other ‘little things’ in perspective, it doesn’t help when we know whoever we are arguing with isn’t in that type of situation.
We Don’t Argue Over Little Things
Contrary to popular belief, we don’t argue about little things. We argue about things we believe are important for some reason or another. It’s the representation by little things that gets us confused. Since when should having a shoe stepped on result in a fight? Yet to them, that represented some sort of respect that wasn’t being given, some sort of acknowledgment or awareness, or a really expensive pair of shoes…
If we or someone else is annoyed or upset about something seemingly small, there is *guaranteed* to be something of importance behind it. If we aren’t able to sniff out what the importance is, it also may not be due to one person or event but an aggregation of things.
Often the bigger things being represented are a result of internal conflicts, not simply conflict between others. Internal struggles like this will not only be difficult to detect, but even more difficult to resolve.
One of the biggest problems is that our social interactions are extremely complex. A drill sergeant yelling and barking orders makes sense in a military environment, yet that same drill sergeant working for Google may not do so well if they don’t adapt. Every individual, every family, every group, every society, every culture has slightly different ways of interacting with others. Someone that grew up in a family with no yelling may get into bad arguments with someone who starts to raise their voice more quickly. Someone that grew up with a very emotionally expressive family may often fight with someone who grew up in a more emotionless family. The person who places high importance on social praise and respect may react completely differently in public settings.
The point we are driving home is that, between social complexity and the context of the little things, we create a massively complex web of possibilities. We should slow things down the moment someone starts to get heated if not for any other reason than we might not understand their context fully and the complexity surrounding it.
How to Argue Over Important Things
Instead of preaching to ‘not sweat the small stuff,’ we know it’s ok to have disagreements and discuss those disagreements to try to come to some sort of solution to the issue, no matter how small things may seem. We just need to remember a few key things:
1. Understand the context of the little thing. If it seems insignificant, we likely don’t understand the context.
2. Acknowledge, agree, or compromise. Acknowledging the problem that is being presented is often simple and can sometimes solve the problem without even agreeing.
3. Help others always. If the person we are arguing with starts to get too emotional, slow things down, or walk away immediately.
4. Self-care. If we are losing control of our own emotions, slow things down, walk away, and stay away until we regain control.
5. Address importance via emotions. Trying to disengage when getting too heated may seem as though it isn’t important; acknowledge this and try to smooth it out as possible.
When Enough Is Enough
Everyone has their limits. It’s much easier to walk away or to let things go with strangers. But when our family or friends we live with have these encounters persistently, it can become very stressful for all involved. Ideally, we come to understand the context of the little things so that we can at least navigate around the problems and help out where we can.
But if we’re dealing with someone’s own internal issues, we’re in a relationship where these arguments are too frequent or feel overwhelmingly stressful, then it may be time to walk away or get outside help. Having a professional ‘facilitate’ conversations or issues could be all that is needed.
We also may just as easily be the cause of the chronic stress as someone else. Relationships and social interactions are not always easy, but as long as we work to use our emotions wisely and remember that arguments over little things are usually over something bigger, we’ll find a solution.