J, a friend of mine, was at the post office the other day waiting in line. She realized she needed a form so moved to the table a few feet away to fill out the form and then moved back toward her place in line. The man behind her in line, however, had already moved into her place and seemed unwilling to budge. J started to assert that she “was on line,” but then caught herself, acknowledging, “No, those are the rules – step out of line, lose your place.”

Hearing this, the man’s belligerent demeanor immediately changed and he offered to let her back in front of him. J declined but when they got to the head of the line, he insisted that she go ahead of him. They ended up at neighboring windows and when the man was finished with his business, he turned to J and said, smiling, "Have a nice day." The result: what could have been an unpleasant exchange was transformed into a friendly interaction.

We all have our own rules – an extensive, often subconscious, repertoire of expectations and beliefs about how we think people should behave – developed to establish a semblance of control in our hectic, busy lives. For me, living in a crowded city like New York where countless encounters with strangers is the daily norm, the myriad of potentially conflicting “rules” is all too apparent, on the subway, the sidewalk, in the movie theatre...

In an attempt to establish a consensus, New York Magazine’s Urban Etiquette Handbook outlined modern-day protocol for some of the more vexing social situations such as Blackberry/cell phone/iPod usage, subway etiquette (yikes, who knew eyelash curling was a no-no?!) and breaking up with your hair stylist.

But for the most part, it’s advisable not to assume there is widespread knowledge, much less agreement, on what the “rules” are. Moreover, they change according to context. (As noted in the Urban Handbook, holding the doors of the train open to allow someone to get on is a no-go – unless, of course, you’re the one rushing for the train.)

The rules each of us has vis à vis the people we know and care about are even more complex and variable. Did they call often enough, say the right words, spend the requisite amount on the proper gift, treat our friends well enough, and otherwise show their love and respect the way they were “supposed” to? Most of us never really articulate to others what our own personal rules are, instead blithely assuming that others adhere to the same code of conduct.

But with our diverse cultural, socioeconomic and educational backgrounds and unique life experiences, how could we possibly all have developed the same rules? Even members of the same family have different references and sensitivities, and therefore react differently under the same circumstances. One person might think a specially home-cooked meal is the ultimate birthday celebration while another might think anything less than a seven-course dinner at a fancy restaurant is a grievous slight.

Consequently, expecting others to discern and then comply with your rules will not lead to the anxiety-free existence you’re trying to ensure. In fact, this vigilant enforcement will likely only exacerbate your stress and frustration. So here are a few guidelines to help you navigate a world of “unruly” behavior:

GET CURIOUS. The first rule of rules is: don’t take it personally. In most cases, it’s not about you. People, particularly strangers, are not reacting to you specifically -- how could they possibly know you? Rather, they are acting out of their own beliefs, frustrations and fears, or they simply may be having a crappy day.

So before you lose your cool or take the offensive, why not take a deep breath and ask yourself what rule or belief you are bringing to the situation. Is it: “How dare he think his time is more valuable than mine!” or “People always take advantage of me—they must think I’m a push-over.” Then ask, “Is it really true? How do I know that he thinks his time is more valuable than mine?” Finally, take a moment to ponder why the other person did what they did, and...

GET CREATIVE. See if you can come up with a couple of different explanations. Perhaps the man at the post office in the anecdote above had a previous experience with people rudely butting ahead of him in line; perhaps he was from a family of eight and had learned to always fight for his place; or maybe he was a busy small-business owner who thought he had better things to do than mail his own packages – whatever the reason, he had a personal rule that was driving his initial reaction. With a little curiosity and creativity, you can then begin to...

GET COMPASSIONATE. Once you’ve come up with some alternative explanations for the person’s behavior – apart from “their sole goal in life is to annoy me” – why not try letting go of the adversarial, me vs. you, position and put yourself in their shoes. Give them the benefit of the doubt: there is method to their madness, you just don’t know what it is. My past roommates can attest to my habit of doggedly turning off the lights when they weren’t in the room, even if it meant they stumbled through the apartment in the dark. The truth is, though, that it wasn’t a passive-aggressive reminder about the electric bill but a wholly unconscious action, thanks to being thoroughly brainwashed as a child (under threat of a five-cent fine) to turn off the lights when I left the room.

Simply acknowledging someone’s right to their rules, as J did at the post office, and examining what rules you are bringing to the situation (“people should call when they’re running late”) can dramatically change the dynamic and open the door for compromise rather than confrontation. Then you’re ready to...

GET COMMUNICATIVE. Now, if the situation warrants, you can ask questions to find out what the real story is: “Did I do something to offend?” “What would you like to have happened?” “Are you feeling all right?” Asking the questions doesn’t necessarily require you to acquiesce to their wishes, but it will open a dialogue to help you connect with that person. And, ultimately, isn’t connection and being understood – rather than being right – what we’re seeking?

Of course, it’s not easy to stop and ask, “Hmmm, I wonder why they did that” when someone has deeply offended your sense of propriety. But you might find that the breakthrough in communication and understanding achieved by taking the steps above is ultimately more satisfying than the damage done from "going postal."

Author's Bio: 

Renita T. Kalhorn is a personal and business coach who specializes in coaching entrepreneurs, executives and performing artists to turbo-charge their performance and achieve extreme life satisfaction. To learn more and sign up for her FREE monthly newsletter, visit In The Flow at http://www.intheflowcoaching.com.