I WIll Not Calm Down

Or "chill out" or "settle down" or "take it down a notch."

Nov 16, 2011 at 10:00am | Leave a comment

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Once, not long after college, I was out with a new acquaintance having drinks at an outdoor patio. A car stopped at the corner. It was being driven by a woman and her cat, who was perched in her lap, its tiny paws resting on the steering wheel.

Giggling hysterically, I turned toward my new friend, expecting her to be sharing in the joke. Instead, she raised her eyebrows. “Okay, just calm down,” she said.

The implication that she was embarrassed by my mirth quickly shut me up and we ended up sitting in silence, uncomfortable and in control. She didn’t have to find it funny, but she also didn’t have to make me feel stupid. The tabby was driving for Chrissake.

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As an excitable person, I hate being told any of the following:

"Calm down"
"Settle down"
"Chill out"
"Relax" (unless you are talking about drinking wine by the fire)
"Take it down a notch"

Usually I get told to calm down when I am feeling engaged in some issue, when I am expressing my discontent over how a politician is handling something or  outrage at something I feel is unjust or, most frustratingly, when I am standing up for myself.

But the worst and most unforgivable times I’ve been told to keep my cool have been when I’ve been genuinely happily or excited about something I’ve seen or am working on.

At one job my boss told me to “just calm down” when I was presenting my ideas for a project we were doing that I was especially interested in. It was funny. I didn’t feel un-calm. But I did suddenly feel very embarrassed. The result of his words was that my enthusiasm was immediately extinguished for that project and I felt far too self-conscious about showing excitement to ever voluntarily participate in the future.

I don’t know about you, but I have never been told to calm down at a time when I was even remotely close to losing control over myself.

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In times of actual crisis, I am generally as cool as a cucumber. Because of this, I find the words to be a kind of hostile behavior. When you tell someone to calm down, you are putting that person in their place. You are implying that excited party doesn’t have the power to regulate their own actions and needs to be reigned in, or that their enthusiasm is embarrassing. You are trying to restrict them, to keep their ideas quieter, their opinions weaker, their humor lighter.

I’m not saying people should be able to go on rampages while we sit idly by afraid of repressing their feelings, but unless somebody is foaming at the mouth or coming at you with a lead pipe -- in which case your best bet is probably not telling them to “cool it” -- their excitement is probably not going to hurt you.

If I am not even allowed to even be publicly excited over something, then I have one less reason for being. Life is often restrictive, but maybe if people got worked up about things a little more often it would at least be less boring.

What do you think? Am I overreacting? Too emotional? Just be careful how you tell me.