We’ve all seen people lose their cool over trivial events – or maybe we blew our stack because someone cut in line or stole our parking space. But why do we react so strongly to insignificant issues? Because, in those incidents, someone’s broken society’s unspoken rules of conduct.

Duke University psychologist Dr. Mark Leary says that our society functions because we follow social-exchange rules – like drive safely, wait your turn, clean up after yourself, and apologize if you step on someone’s foot. So, the guy who starts shouting because you accidentally jumped the line isn’t upset about waiting an extra three minutes. He’s saying, “Hey, we’re following the rules, what makes you so special?”

If you think this means that, deep down, we’re all still kids on the playground – you’re right. Dr. Leary points out that the playground is where most of us learned what’s fair, and which social-exchange rules we needed to follow. And the rules learned early in life are deeply ingrained and very important to us.

So, what should you do if you’re on the receiving end of a meltdown?

  • Apologize – even if you’re not in the wrong. Dr. Leary points out that it’s not whether you actually violated the rules that matter, it’s whether someone thinks you did. And it’s not worth getting into a genuine fight over something so trivial.

  • Try to forget about it. One way is to use a trick used by customer service reps, who hear a lot of ranting and raving: Think about the other person. Maybe they had a really rotten day, and they’re taking it out on you. Realizing that their reaction is all about them – and not because you’re a horrible person – can help you empathize and get over it faster.