It’s usually not a good idea to tell someone to “calm down,” unless someone is completely out of control and you’re trying to prevent damage to life or limb. Even then, it’s questionable, and it depends on who you’re talking to.
People often tell someone else to calm down when another person is upset about something. It’s typical in intimate relationships but it can also occur in any kind of discussion, even between friends or acquaintances, in email or chat.
One person may use colorful language or speak in a more dynamic, emotional way than usual. Or he may be getting frustrated. The other person then becomes uncomfortable with the emotional display or what he or she perceives to be heightened emotions. In an attempt to control the situation, the person who is uncomfortable tells the other to “calm down.”
Why telling someone to “calm down” isn’t such a great idea
First, it derails the discussion and changes the focus from the discussion topic to a commentary on one participant’s emotions (or perceived emotions).
Second, it’s an order. One person assumes the upper hand and attempts to control the other by telling him or her what to feel. Nobody likes to take orders, and nobody likes to be told what emotion he or she should feel.
Third, it’s demeaning and invalidating. It tells the other person that it’s not OK to feel whatever he or she is feeling, and that what he or she is saying isn’t important.
Finally, it’s rarely effective, and it usually escalates a discussion or argument or ends it unhappily.
If you’re uncomfortable with the level of emotion displayed by someone else, it’s best to own up to it.
Many approaches are possible. Here are a few:
Check your assumptions Is the other person really in an emotional state that requires calming to help you feel more comfortable? Is he or she enthusiastic and expressive or truly getting upset? You may want to ask or just continue with the discussion, in a calm way, to see how it goes.
Own your behavior It’s possible that the other person is reacting to the way you’re handling your side of the discussion. Instead of telling the other person to calm down, think about what he or she may be reacting to and modify it. Ask questions, if necessary, to find out what the other person is frustrated with, if that’s the case.
Own your reactions If you’re uncomfortable, ask for the discussion to be resumed another time. Let the other person know that you’re uncomfortable with how it’s going and you need to take a break. If it’s only an email exchange or chat, simply wrap it up politely and make sure any necessary facts are taken care of.
Be specific Is there something the other person has said that feels particularly offensive to you? Perhaps he or she used profanity or made a remark that offends you. If that’s the case, let the person know that it’s unacceptable to you and that you can’t continue the discussion if he or she uses that kind of language (or makes offensive remarks).
Stick to facts Focus on your own needs instead of attempting to control someone else. If your need is not respected, end the discussion.
If someone is acting annoyed or irritated, there’s usually a reason. Telling the person to calm down is only a control tactic and can, in fact, raise the level of annoyance or anger in the other, if there is one. And if the other person isn’t upset in the first place, being told to calm down can easily get him there.
Try replacing “calm down” with “I can see you’re upset, and I understand. But it’s getting me upset, too. Could we take a 5 minute time out and start over?” Chances are good you’ll get much better results.
Or try an honest “I’m sorry, is there something I’ve said that’s upset you?” or “It sounds like you’re upset. Are you?” If the answer is yes, you can ask what you might do to make things better. You might even hear, “Oh my goodness, no! I only meant that….” and you’ll be back on course in a jiffy.
Has anyone ever told you to calm down? What was your response? Did you suddenly feel waves of bliss coming over you? Or did you get even more pissed off? I’d love to hear about it! Comments are welcome.