This week’s edition starts off with an unusual story, one I heard on the radio yesterday morning while driving to a running rendezvous.
Picture this: It’s a warm summer’s night in Washington, DC, some might even say it was a magical evening. Eight friends are gathered outside, drinking fine French wine, chatting, and celebrating the new restaurant one of them had recently opened.
“I was standing beside my wife and I just saw this arm with a long-barreled gun come between us,” said a man named Michael, who was there with his wife and daughter.
The stranger raises the gun and says: “Give me your money, or I am going to start effing shooting.”
The problem is that no one had any money on them. The group fell silent and the tension rose. At first, they tried to defuse the situation by invoking guilt. “What would your mother think of you?” one asked. That didn’t go down too well.
The situation became more strained. Then a woman named Christina spoke up. “We’re here celebrating,” she said. “Why don’t you have a glass of wine and sit down.”
And, Michael says, “It was like a switch, you could feel the difference.”
The man in the sweat suit accepted.
He put the gun in his pocket, sipped the wine, ate some cheese, and then did something no one expected: He asked for a hug.
A little while later he apologized and sauntered off, wine glass in hand, out the gate, and into the night.
Not exactly the outcome anyone there, or listening to the story, would have expected, right?
Usually, people mirror each other. For example, nastiness begets nastiness and kindness begets kindness. But when you break this pattern, which is very hard to do, it’s called non-complementarity.
Co-host Alix Spiegel explains that, “People do manage to sometimes behave in non-complementary ways and, when they do, it often completely shakes up a situation. It happens between people, but also it can happen on a bigger level.”
Psychologist Christopher J. Hopwood explains what is meant by “a bigger level.” He says the reason we admire people like Mahatma Gandhi or Martin Luther King Jr. is because they were able to maintain warmth and integrity in the face of cruelty.
Hanna Rosin, co-host of Invisibilia, explains further: “Complementary behavior is the norm. It means when you act warmly, the person you are with is likely to act warm back. The same is true with hostility. But non-complementary behavior means doing the unexpected. Someone acts with hostility and you respond warmly. It’s an unnatural reaction, and it’s a proven way to shake up the dynamic and produce a different outcome from the usual one.”