Monday, June 12, 2017

Showdown at the playground

This past Saturday I helped run the Fun Fair for Elli's school.  I was the volunteer coordinator, which means I was the one panicking when half of my volunteers either didn't show or showed up late.

On a related note, damn teenagers.  I had eight of them signed up to help for the whole day to get their volunteer hours to graduate high school.  They all confirmed they would be there from 8 until 2.  Now, being the realistic person that I am, I assumed they would be late.  An hour late, say.  At 8:30 the first teenager rolled in, a couple more arrived at 10:30, and several didn't get there until 12:30.  Then they acted like nothing was wrong, and said "Oh... but I didn't know when it started....."

Yes.  You did.  Because I got you to confirm specifically that you were going to be there from 8 until 2.  I have it in writing!  ARGHERKHGH.

Anyway, despite teenagers being incredibly unreliable we got great weather and had enough people to make the thing work and overall it was a successful endeavour.  The children got to spend a ton of time standing in lines in the hot sun for bouncy castles and fair food, and for some reason they liked this.

All that stuff was predictable.  Obviously scheduling volunteers for an event like this will be a disaster, and obviously teenagers will sleep in and be unreliable.

What surprised me is how close I got to getting in a fistfight.

Fistfights, for the record, are not usually a feature of elementary school Fun Fairs.  Although if they were we could rope them off and probably bring in a lot more people... <scribbles notes furiously>

During the Fair one of the people running the bouncy castles for us who worked for the bouncy castle company came up to me and asked for my help.  He was scared, he said, because one of the people at the Fair was getting aggressive and shouting at him.  He wanted me to help.

I wandered over to the man he pointed to, and instantly I realized that the man was kind of drunk.  Drunk Guy looked at me in a way that made it clear he knew I was there to fuss at him and he was immediately defensive.  He was sitting down so I crouched down to talk to him in the hopes of keeping him calm, but Drunk Guy quickly stood up and launched into a tirade about how terrible the bouncy castle person was.  The basic story came out that children were trying to leap over the edge of the bouncy castle, the employee told them to stop, and the Drunk Guy was angry about this.  He demanded of the bouncy castle person "Do you work here?" which is actually kind of a tricky question in this circumstance, and the bouncy castle worker walked away, which enraged Drunk Guy.

Drunk Guy then proceeded to yell at me about how terrible it was that someone walked away from him.  He yelled it at me several times to make sure that I knew that it was terrible.  He was obviously worried about being kicked out and had nothing useful to say in his defence.  He got really agitated and started demanding that I agree with him that the bouncy castle person was way out of line.

I wasn't at all sure what to do.  Obviously Drunk Guy was being a shithead and it was all his fault, but it wasn't clear to me how I should handle the situation.  Should I tell him he had to leave?  Would that result in him taking a swing at me?  Should I yell at him and hope to intimidate him into shutting up and leaving?

In this sort of situation size and intimidation are key pieces of information.  Drunk Guy was close to a foot shorter than me and lightly built, so barring him having combat training I rate to be able to toss him out physically without any trouble.  But obviously I don't want to actually fight anyone if I don't have to.  Being that much bigger than another man in a showdown tends to make them defensive and keyed up, but it does mean that they are afraid of actually throwing a punch.

I decided to do what I normally do in this sort of situation, which is to just stand there and listen but adamantly refuse to get excited or angry.  I let him spew his nonsense at me for awhile until he had repeated it all a couple of times and I never really engaged with it.  Eventually my refusal to escalate at all seemed to wear him out and he stopped telling his story and demanded to know if I was going to kick him out.  I hadn't even had a chance to answer that when he said "Hah, I knew you couldn't kick me out!" and turned and wandered away from me.

Something deep inside me *really* wanted to yell "Buddy, not only do I have the authority to kick you out, but if you don't do as I say I will toss your ass over the fence myself!"

But that probably isn't a good idea.  Deeply satisfying in the moment, makes a good story to tell the grandkids, but not a good idea nonetheless.

So I just stood there and watched him wander off.  I kept a really close eye on him for quite awhile, figuring that if he gave anybody any more trouble I would have to make a scene, but Drunk Guy seemed determined to behave himself after that.

I think what happened was he realized that he was in a terrible bind.  If he escalated the conflict with me he stood to 1.  Look like an asshole in front of hundreds of people.  2.  Lose a fight.  3.  Get arrested.  But he desperately didn't want to back down and apologize, so he settled for pretending that he won the argument.

Everybody knows that when you are in a staredown with someone as part of a yelling argument and you mumble quietly about how you won and walk away while the other guy glares at you... you lost.  But by fussing about how I couldn't kick him out anyway he clasped his tattered dignity to his chest and got out of there.  Shortly thereafter he left the Fair, so the problem went away on its own.

I am glad it was me that had to deal with that.  All the other people running the event were women of much more moderate size than me and I don't know what he would have done if they had shown up to chastise him.  It might have gone better potentially as maybe he got more aggressive because I am a man, but he might well have decided that he could just trample all over them and/or threaten them.  I am quite sure that I was the one who would be least upset about that sort of confrontation, in large part because of the lack of fear of what would happen if he decided to get physical, so I am glad I was there and that I was the one who got the call to deal with it.

I do wish I knew if I dealt with it correctly.  Hell, I don't even know if me going over to him at all was productive.  I know that I don't want to let people be assholes like that, especially because of the possibility that this had a racial bigotry element to it.  (The Bouncy castle worker was a person of colour, and Drunk Guy was white.)  However, it might well be that me going over to him was really what got him wound up, and I escalated just by being there.

My suspicion is that an intimidating stare combined with the stubborn refusal to get angry or excited was the right way to handle the situation, but again I don't know.  Sometimes people really want other people to share their emotions and they get angry when that doesn't happen.

Delivering a lecture on his drunkenness, his entitlement, or his aggressiveness would have been satisfying, but probably counterproductive.  And yet I really want him to understand why he fucked up... though likely that is impossible in the state he was in.

I can say for sure though that I am glad for the training I got in sales surrounding these situations.  The more times you have to practice coping with someone who is frothing mad while maintaining professionalism the easier it gets and the less scary it is.


  1. If you are looking for de-escalation options, I'd say that you treat emotional people by talking to their emotions, and emotions are like four-year-olds. I might try doing a number of things.

    Try to stand beside him rather than in front of him (e.g. talking about the bouncy castle so face the bouncy castle). Gradually start walking. When your walk arrives at the exit, he'll most likely leave.

    Repeat statements back to make sure he knows you heard him. Then say something like, "I understand you feel angry about that, but I don't think yelling in the middle of a school fun fair is an appropriate way to deal with that." Maybe spice in a "We can't always control our emotions, but we do control how we act on them."

    Help him figure out what he actually wants from the situation by guiding him through it. "How would you like to see this situation resolved?" or "What would you like to happen next?"

    But it's not like there's a silver bullet that handles difficult situations with angry people (well, silver bullets probably work a treat). The fact is you handled it and the outcome pretty okay in a relative-to-initial-conditions sense. People are a crappy game. You'll never know if you made the best play.

    At any rate, I definitely think going over there was right. Like you say, it's far better that someone like you or I go to deal with drunk angry person then leaving that to a small woman who he may feel entitled to be more aggressive with.

  2. i've learned (at work) that there is no point trying to reason with someone who is intoxicated (on any substance). No point in trying to point out that they are being a jerk, or why kicking the paramedics was wrong. It doesn't sink in. They aren't in a situation to 'get it'. So I think not rising to it, and either letting the other person wander away, or wandering away yourself is a good tactic. Nicely handled ... sounds like it might have been scary for those around you and like you took good care of the situation.