The Double-Wrong

What exactly is a double-wrong? Let me give you some examples before I try and supply a definition.

  • You have an acquaintance who you is always rude to you at social gatherings. You are thinking about having a frank conversation with them, but then decide to be the bigger person and be very nice to them the next time you meet. You’re extremely nice and polite. But they continue to be rude. You drop the plan of being nice instantly and confront them.
  • You have a friend who never picks up the check during meals in restaurants. You are thinking about splitting bills equally in the future, or just not going out with them. But then you decide that friendship requires sacrifice, and you treat them to a very nice dinner. Your friend still refuses to pick up the check at future meals. You lose it and confront them.
  • Your partner keeps arguing with you, and of course your argue back. One day you unilaterally decide to try and be a better partner, and completely stop arguing back. This doesn’t change your partner’s behavior, and they keep arguing with the same intensity. You drop your plan of being nice, and return to the old ways.

In most cases, when one person wrongs another, the other person wrongs right back; at least when the two people involved are equal in power, status, etc. However, when people who are important to you are involved, sometimes you feel the urge to be the bigger person and not respond to their wrongdoings in kind. You decide to not argue back with your siblings, do the dishes even though your roommates refuse to, whatever. Behind every such decision to be nicer than the other person is the certain hope that your modified behavior will compel the other person to change their own behavior, and that this will repair your relationship. This, of course, almost never happens. Maybe the other person is too angry to even notice that your behavior has changed. Maybe they feel that they are right in shouting at you and that you are finally right in listening quietly. Whatever be the reason, you quickly decide that yours is a failed strategy because it didn’t produce the effects you wanted. You feel that first you were being wronged; subsequently you tried to be the bigger person person, and then you were double-wronged. You go right back to being an inconsiderate friend, partner, whatever.

In a lot of ways, double-wrongs have shaped my life. Sometimes I was being a jerk, and people would try to be nice to me and give me a second chance. And I continued being a jerk. They eventually cut ties with me, and I lost valuable people. Sometimes other people were being jerks, and I tried to be the bigger person, and they continued being jerks, when I decided to cut them loose and go my own way. What surprised me when thinking about this is how pervasive this has been. People have almost always given me second chances. Similarly, I have almost always given friends/partners/relatives second chances. People are nicer than you’d think. And despite this, we lose so many people along the way.

Something that has worked for me in the recent past has been budgeting. For instance, when I decide to give people second chances, I may think of a number of times the other person has to wrong me before I confront them. This number is generally around five. This helps in the following way: if I am the bigger person to someone for five successive interactions, there is a higher chance that they’d notice the effort I was putting in and consequently modify their behavior. More importantly, when I decide to become the bigger person without budgeting, I am setting an unlimited budget for niceness; in other words, I decide to be nice to the other person in all future interactions, even if they are horrible to me in each of those interactions. Needless to say, unlimited budgets never work. Let me try and give an example below:

Your roommate never does the dishes. You decide to be the bigger person, and keep doing the dishes. You feel like a really good person, and you leave the sink empty and clean. The next morning, you again see the sink full of dirty dishes. You realize that this will keep happening every single morning. Although yesterday you thought it would be possible for you to keep doing this everyday, the infinite future with its infinite days of dish-washing while your roommate probably sniggers at your obsequiousness is too much to bear. You snap and confront your roommate.

An infinite budget for kindness is too much budget for anyone to be comfortable with all the time. What actually ends up happening is that a person snaps after just one day, thinking an infinite budget to be untenable. This is the reason that having a number like “five” can be helpful: you know that there is an end in sight. As soon as your five days are up, you can feel quite morally justified in confronting them so that the whole situation is not overly unfair to you.

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Graduate student

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