Uyboco: Context

Andy Uyboco

A WOMAN went to buy coffee at a mall near the place where she worked. As she was about to go down the escalator, a man shoved her aside as he hurried down the steps, making her spill coffee on her dress.

“Hey!” she cried.

But the man did not even look back as he rushed out the exit doors.

“What a rude idiot,” she thought.

She was still mad about her ruined dress as she went back to the hospital where she worked. She was a doctor in the emergency room. As she was checking in, she saw the man who had shoved her aside, sobbing beside a bed that held the body of a young child whom the doctors tried to revive but failed.

Suddenly, she was not so mad about her dress anymore.

When my wife and I decided to go into business, it exposed us to a quite a wide variety of people. I thought that I had dealt with some of the weirdest kids when I was a teacher, but I never realized that some adults could be even weirder (at least, from my point of view -- for all you know, I was the weird one in their world).

In dealing with these different types of people, I came to understand one thing -- context matters, and it matters a lot. While these people may seem to act rude, weird, idiotic or stupid, they were doing so because of a certain context -- it may be a family situation, or an ingrained belief system, or peer pressure, or anything else.

Too often, we judge people without stepping into the context under which they operate. We get mad, irritated, or even murderous over situations that would actually make sense if only we had taken time to listen and understand the details, emotions and motivations surrounding it.

Learning to be quiet, to listen first before reacting, has taught me how to empathize with the other person better and to come to a solution that we both can agree on, and it saves me the trouble of getting my emotions all riled up over nothing.

One of the best examples of understanding context that I can think of is another coffee story -- the case of Stella Liebeck, otherwise known as the woman who sued and won a case against McDonald’s for serving hot coffee that was too hot. People used to cite this story as an example of how ridiculous the legal system can be and how lawyers can manipulate “facts” in order to win a case.

So let’s bring a little context into this story by filling in a few details from the American Museum of Tort Law. Liebeck was a 79-year-old woman when she got burned by McDonald’s coffee, which documents show was served at around 180 to 190 degrees, 30 to 40 degrees higher than served by other companies and commercial home coffee machines. Liebeck suffered third degree burns on her thighs and genitals. Further investigation also showed that 700 other people had suffered serious burns.

Yet, even though the company was aware of that, they did not change their policy of serving coffee at that temperature. And even though Liebeck initially was willing to settle for $20,000 to cover her medical expenses, all that McDonald’s was willing to pay was $800.

So in the end, the jury awarded Liebeck with “$200,000 in compensatory damages for her pain, suffering, and medical costs, but those damages were reduced to $160,000 because they found her 20 percent responsible.

They awarded $2.7 million in punitive damages. That amounted to about two days of revenue for McDonald’s coffee sales. The trial judge reduced the punitive damages to $480,000, while noting that McDonald’s behavior had been “willful, wanton, and reckless.” The parties later settled for a confidential amount. According to news accounts, this amount was less than $500,000.”

And then of course, media picked up the story and ran a headline that said a woman made $2.7 million by spilling hot coffee on herself and that version of the story is still being told and spread today, and Liebeck is probably still the object of ridicule for many.

But now that you know the context, I hope you’ll think better of her from this point forward.

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