I love finding a precise term for things I’ve observed in the word. It’s so satisfying to discover concepts like Schadenfreude, or “acting in reliance,” or wabi-sabi. One of my favorite parts of writing my book Power Money Fame Sex: A User’s Guide was making up new terms: platinum rule, eye stray, object lust, ubiniquity.
Recently I had a conversation with a friend about a mutual acquaintance – call her X. In flagrant violation of my resolution of “No gossip,” I observed, “X is one of the top two unfriendliest people I’ve met in my adult life.”
My friend is a friend of X, and she said, “I know. I like her, but a lot of people don’t. We’ve been in social situations together, and I’ll see other friends behave toward her in a way that I’ve never seen them act before, very hostile and defensive. She’s always nice to me, but I know she must be different with other people, if they react to her like that.”
Well, it turns out there’s a very handy term for this phenomenon. It’s “situation evocation.”
In situation evocation, we spark a response from people that reinforces a tendency we already have—for example, if I act irritable all the time, the people around me are probably going to treat me with less patience and helpfulness, which will, in turn, stoke my irritability.
On the other hand, if I can manage to do more joking around, I’d evoke a situation in which the people around me were more likely to joke around, too.
X is remarkably unfriendly. Her actions shape the way that people respond to her – and they respond to her, I bet, in ways that exacerbate her unfriendliness.
This is a good example of how life isn’t fair. People with a propensity to good cheer will find themselves in a friendly, cheerful environment, while people who are already angry or crabby will find themselves surrounded by uncooperative, suspicious people.
Goethe wrote: “I have come to the frightening conclusion that I am the decisive element. It is my personal approach that creates the climate. It is my daily mood that makes the weather.”
Situation evocation explains one way in which we make our own weather. So, in the words of a Snoopy poster, “Let a smile be your umbrella.”
Two friends of mine, Nancy Schulman and Ellen Birnbaum, have written an outstanding book, Practical Wisdom for Parents: Demystifying the Preschool Years. Their book is a fantastic resource for anyone who has preschool-age children — I especially love their book because I played a tiny role in its creation. Nancy and Ellen have just launched a website, which has lots of great information for anyone who wants to know about child development at that stage.
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