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The Great Breadcrumb Battle Finally Brought to its Knees

“When you scatter crumbs all over a floor I finished vacuuming not five minutes ago, it conveys you’re disregarding or devaluing the work I’ve done.”

A version of that sentence has come out of my mouth for 23 years. I call it the Breadcrumb Battle.

Somehow, my husband butters his toast in such a way that breadcrumbs scatter in a delicate pattern around his feet. I’ve watched him over the years, trying to figure out why my bread buttering and his yield such different crumb results. Sometimes when I’m standing there watching, I step outside of myself and am horrified to realize I’ve probably spent a total of a couple of hours of my life diagnosing bread buttering problems. I’d like those hours back, please.

It’s one of those classic, apparently minor skirmishes that couples get into – Should the toothpaste be squeezed from the bottom or the middle? Should it be recapped? Should the toilet seat be lowered after a guy uses it? Should the paper towels unroll over the top or from underneath? Mercifully, we don’t skirmish on any of those. No, we (I?) choose breadcrumbs.

Oh, for goodness sake.

When I’m teaching new mediators their craft, I use toothpaste and paper towels to illustrate an important lesson: It’s not about toothpaste. It’s not about paper towels. It’s not about toilet seats. It sure as hell isn’t about breadcrumbs. And don’t take the easy route and diagnose it as a power struggle, either.

Our classic skirmish goes something like this:

Me: You’re scattering breadcrumbs on the floor again. I just finished cleaning this floor!

Him: I didn’t mean to.

Me: I don’t care that you didn’t mean to. I care that you did. Intention and impact are two different things.

Him: It’s just a few crumbs. Gee whiz. Sorry!

Me: It’s not about the crumbs and you know it. It’s about me putting in time and effort on something and you disregarding it and messing it up within 30 seconds. There’s a whole long list of things like the crumbs.

Him: Is this going to turn into a long conversation involving martyrdom? Because I’m not really interested. I said I’m sorry. We’re done here. [Picture his back as he walks away with his crumby bread.]

A single skirmish doesn’t matter. Even a few of them don’t matter. But they can add up and start to matter and my goal is to stop those suckers dead in their tracks.

So the other day I heard the toaster pop. I turned to watch the crumb show. I had just swept the floor. The stage was set for a classic Breadcrumb Battle.

But not, as it turns out, inevitably so.

As a few crumbs drifted down onto the lovely dark Italian tiles, I played a trick of the mind with myself.

When my brain followed it’s now-habitual path, “There he goes again, devaluing my work,” I forced it down a different path. It didn’t like it, but my will is stronger than my brain’s whiny habits, so I won.

I forced my brain to ask these questions, quietly to itself: “What if this has nothing to do with what he thinks or doesn’t think of the work I do around here? What if he’s pondering more important things, like the future of life on this planet? Or his research project? Or the new committee the town just asked him to serve on?”

The end result? Still crumbs on the floor, yes. But no skirmish at all. I shrugged and walked away. The old method left the crumbs on the floor as well, so I’m no worse off.

And to be fair to my husband, there are plenty of other housekeeping faux pas he has modified over two decades, at my request. When I’m 100 and looking back on my life, I know I’ll fondly recall those crumbs because it meant we were both still alive.

Might as well look at them fondly now.


Tammy Lenski

Dr. Tammy Lenski helps individuals, pairs, teams, and audiences navigate disagreement better, address friction, and build alignment. Her current work centers on creating the conditions for robust collaboration and sound decisions while fostering resilient personal and professional relationships. Her conflict resolution podcast and blog, Disagree Better, are available at… MORE >

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