The two most useless words in the entire English language have to be ‘Calm down.’ Have these words ever had the desired effect on anyone since the conception of time? No they have not. In fact, tell a person to calm down and quite the opposite range of emotions occur. It’s like duct taping a zebra steak to your forehead in hopes of keeping the lions off you. It only makes matters worse. No one ever shakes your hand after being told to calm down and says, “Thank you. You’re absolutely right. I needed to hear that. There. Look at me now. I’m completely Zen.”
And yet we can’t seem to resist the use of it. Who hasn’t been in a line up at a retail store and witnessed an enraged customer spewing insults on some poor hapless employee, only to have Hapless Employee say, “Calm down.” A collective gasp goes through the lineup and you just know what’s coming next...and it isn’t calm. It’s the opposite of calm. It’s the calm before the storm.
Parents try the same words on their children with surprising regularity despite its negative outcome. There’s frightened little Sam being hauled along a road of giant candy canes towards a bearded stranger where he is torn from his parent’s arms, deposited into a stranger’s (a really strange stranger’s) red velvet lap and told to, “Calm down.” What he wants to hear from his parent is some version of, “Here, let me hold you while we walk away.” Calm down doesn’t make any sense when you’re two years old and terrified.
It doesn’t make a lot of sense when you’re fifty and ticked off neither.
Bring the words into an argument with your spouse and watch the fur fly. Without fail those two harmless seeming words will ricochet off your loved ones temper and come hurtling back to you in the form of, “Calm down! Don’t tell me to calm down!”
The emphasis on “me” when we say “Don’t tell me to calm down” implies that we would very much like to say calm down in return, but will not tolerate being on the receiving end. Calm down is something you might say early on in a relationship, but rarely do you go there twice. And in case you’re wondering, in the early years I was the one with the fiery red haired temper while Darcy was the one most likely to regret saying, “Calm down.”
So why do we say it? And why do we hate to hear it? Even telling a person to shut up is less inflammatory than saying calm down. How can that be?
I think telling a person to calm down implies – usually correctly – that you are in control of your emotions while they...er, are not. They realize they’ve just made an ass of themselves and now everyone else sees it too. They either have to mask the situation by getting even more righteous and indignant, or surrender to a less than flattering image of themselves. If the two most useless words are calm down, the two most difficult words to say in reply are I’m sorry. But if you have the strength to go there, instead of looking like an idiot you regain respect.
Sometimes it is even advisable to substitute the words I’m sorry for Calm Down, even though you might think it’s the angry person who needs to apologize. A lovely yet overlooked truth of the human condition is that peace is as contagious as violence. In every communication we have the opportunity to incite goodwill or start a brawl. At our core we all want the same thing; to be loved, to be respected and to be heard. For such an intelligent species we have some pretty strange ways of communicating those needs.
Back in the days of VHS and video stores movie rentals came with a sticker that read “Be kind, rewind.” It was meant as a reminder to rewind the videos before returning them to the store but they’re also wise words to live by; a sort of go-to mantra for when we start to lose our temper. Even if less than wise words have already left our lips we can still press pause, be kind and rewind. Depending on the circumstance we could say, “I’m sorry.” We could say, “What can I do to make this right?” We could say, “I understand your frustration.” But whatever you do, don’t say, “Calm down.”
Shannon McKinnon is a humour columnist from Northern BC. You can catch up on past columns by visiting www.shannonmckinnon.com