By now, many have heard about (or watched) Serena Williams's recent actions at the U.S. Open, where she appeared to have an emotional meltdown in response to the actions of chair umpire Carlos Ramos, which she later claimed were sexist.
As an author who focuses on the value of emotional intelligence in everyday life, I was recently presented with the question:
What emotional intelligence lessons do Williams's actions in the match teach us?
The answer is more nuanced than it may appear. But before we get into the details, it's helpful to remember how exactly we define emotional intelligence.
The definition of emotional intelligence
The foundational concept of emotional intelligence is based on a theory formed by two psychologists, John D. Mayer and Peter Salovey, who posited that just as people have a wide range of intellectual abilities, they also have a wide range of emotional skills that profoundly affect their thinking and actions.
In their original article, Mayer and Salovey described it this way:
Emotional intelligence is the ability to monitor one's own and others' feelings and emotions, to discriminate among them and to use this information to guide one's thinking and actions.
Throughout the years, our study of this ability has led to a more nuanced understanding. For example, similar to what we think of as "traditional" intelligence, emotional intelligence can be used to reach a short- or long-term goal. An expression of anger can therefore be an emotionally intelligent action, if it aids the person to achieve what they have set out to do.
This concept is summed up in a famous quote that is generally attributed to the famous philosopher, Aristotle:
"Anyone can get angry, but to do this to the right person, to the right extent, at the right time, with the right motive, and in the right way, that is not for everyone, nor is it easy."
Of course, this idea leads to more questions: Who decides the "right" person, extent, time, motive, and way?
That's a whole other topic. For now, let's focus on Williams, and what she was trying to accomplish with her actions.
Of course, that's also difficult to surmise.
We can't read Williams's mind. That's just one reason why trying to determine whether a single action is emotionally intelligent or not is very difficult--because we can't interpret a person's motives to any degree of certainty. But we can use the powers of observation--verbal cues, body language--to give us clues. And we can listen to what the person herself, in this case Williams, has to say about the matter, in an effort to draw out lessons.
So, what actually happened in the match?
Here's what happened in the US Open
The problems began when Ramos (the umpire) saw Williams's coach, Patrick Mouratoglou, attempting to signal to Williams during a game. Ramos then issued a code violation (and a warning) to Williams for in-game coaching, which is against the rules.
Williams responded with what appears to be a very emotionally intelligent action. She calmly explains her difference of opinion, politely and respectfully reasoning with Ramos (visible at the 0:28 mark of the video).
"We [my coach and I] don't have any code," Williams tells Ramos. "And I know you don't know that, and I understand why you may have thought that was coaching, but I'm telling you it's not. I don't cheat to win; I'd rather lose."
Williams goes on to discuss the event further with Ramos some minutes later (0:49). Again, her reasoning manner is a perfect example of emotional intelligence--it's a very respectful expression of a difference of opinion, while acknowledging the umpire and his judgment.
Ramos should also be praised for this part of the discussion, because he too deals with Williams in a respectful manner. He even acknowledges that he knows Williams does not cheat. They end the conversation amicably, and Williams and Ramos even thank each other.
Later in the match (at the 1:38 mark), Williams smashes her racket in frustration after losing a hard-fought point. As mentioned earlier, we can't read Williams mind. But it doesn't appear that her frustration has anything to do with Ramos at that moment, but rather, at struggling with her own errors, or the brilliant play of her opponent, Naomi Osaka.
However, Ramos (correctly) assigns Williams a point penalty for "racket abuse." To complicate matters, since this is a second code violation, Williams receives a point penalty.
And here is where things start to go off the rails. (2:35)
It appears that Williams didn't realize (or remember) the first statement from Ramos, about coaching, specifically as a code violation. ("That's a warning," she says, in reference to the incident.) Now that Williams realizes it was a code violation, she gets visibly upset--because she views what was presented as an official infraction (the code violation for coaching) as an accusation of her cheating.
At this point, Williams's anger ratchets up. "You owe me an apology," Williams demands. "I have never cheated in my life! I have a daughter and I stand what's right for her and I have never cheated. You owe me an apology!"
Critics have compared Williams actions here to a temper tantrum, but this is much a matter of perspective.
To illustrate, imagine you feel that someone has hurled false claims about you and your integrity--perhaps they accuse you of lying or stealing. How would you react? For most of us, we would vehemently deny the allegations, which is exactly what Williams does here.
My goal here is not to judge whether Williams's reaction is right or wrong.
But it is completely natural.
At the next break, Williams pursues her demand for an apology. (3:48) "For you to attack my character, it's wrong," Williams says. "You will never, ever, ever be on another court of mine as long as you live."
And then comes a pivotal moment. (4:05)
"You are the liar," Williams says.
For tennis novices as myself, this statement doesn't mean so much, other than as an expression of Williams's feelings. But as many of us now know, it actually breaks another tennis rule, one known as "verbal abuse." The Grand Slam Rulebook defines verbal abuse as "a statement about an official, opponent, sponsor, spectator or other person that implies dishonesty or is derogatory, insulting or otherwise abusive."
It's interesting to watch Ramos's reaction. (4:09) Again, we can't read his mind, but it's possible that he is now assessing whether to charge Williams with another violation for verbal abuse.
But he doesn't. He sits in silence.
At this point, Williams continues to demand an apology. She continues to berate him. Again to Ramos's credit, he refuses to invoke the verbal abuse rule (yet), although he'd be within the rules to do so.
But Williams cannot let it go. At the 5:00 mark, another pivotal moment:
"You stole a point from me," says Williams. "You're a thief, too."
This time, it's too much for Ramos to let it go. He assigns a third code violation, this time for verbal abuse, automatically awarding the game to Osaka.
Williams is incredulous. She asks the referee to come to review the ruling of the umpire. In tears, Williams keeps repeating the same statement:
"This is not fair."
Williams goes on to compare the treatment she is receiving to what male tennis players get away with, implying that she is receiving sexist treatment. (She repeated this claim in her postmatch post conference.)
At this point, I'd argue that Williams may have experienced an emotional hijack, in which she allowed her emotions to get away from her. She could have chosen to focus on the game at hand, and addressed the concerns with Ramos after the match. Of course, this is all said in hindsight--with the complete realization that if any of us were faced with a similar situation, we very likely would have reacted in a very similar way.
But we must acknowledge that Williams's outburst at this point may have cost her the match.
Could Ramos have looked the other way, and ignored Williams's accusation? Could he have given her a warning before assessing a game penalty?
Of course he could have. But he chose to enforce the rule, probably believing that he had allowed more than enough leeway already. And as the umpire, he was completely within his right to assess the penalty.
Next, there's the question of the "bigger issue" and here's where it gets even more complex.
"I'm here fighting for women's rights and women's equality," Williams said in the postmatch interview. "I just feel like the fact that I have to go through this is just an example for the next person that has emotions and that wants to express themselves and they want to be a strong woman and they're going to be allowed to do that because of today. Maybe it didn't work out for me but it's going to work out for the next person."
On the surface, one could argue that this is an emotionally intelligent action ifit produces the result Williams is looking for, e.g., that she opens the way for more fair treatment for women in the future.
On the other hand, it's very difficult to measure the palpable effects of her actions. Will they really help, or will they cause more harm to her fight in the long run? It's definitely food for thought. Hopefully, these are questions Williams herself will ponder.
Where Serena got it right
In the course of all of this, there are two major actions by Williams which I believe are great examples of emotional intelligence.
The first action occurs when both Williams and Osaka were on the podium to participate in the trophy presentation. The largely pro-Serena crowd loudly booed and jeered, protesting what they felt was unfair treatment leveled against Williams.
Osaka notably pulled her cap over her eyes, to hide her reaction. Both she and Williams were in tears.
Then, Williams put her arm around Osaka's shoulder, addressing the crowd:
"I just want to tell you guys she played well, and this is her first Grand Slam. I know you guys were here rooting, and I was rooting, too, but let's make this the best moment we can. We'll get through it. Let's give everyone the credit where credit's due. Let's not boo anymore. We're going to get through this, and let's be positive. So congratulations, Naomi. No more booing."
Amazingly, not only did the crowd then stoop booing, they erupted into voracious cheers.
This was a powerful example of positive emotional influence: the ability to inspire others to think differently, to see things from a new perspective, and even to change their behavior.
The second action came during Williams's post-match interview.
A reporter asked Williams how she would explain her actions to her daughter, once her daughter was old enough to understand.
"I'll tell her I stood up for what I believed in," Williams responded. "I stood up for what was right. Sometimes things in life [don't] happen the way we want them but to always stay gracious and to stay humble. And that's the lesson I think we can all learn from this. Just like I did."
The truth is, none of us can control our emotions perfectly. We all make mistakes, and we'll continue to do so. Show me an "expert" in emotional intelligence, and I'll show you another person who loses their temper or makes an emotionally faulty decision--under the wrong circumstances.
The only difference here is that Williams's breakdown was witnessed by millions around the world.
I certainly don't believe Williams showed that she was spoiled, or self-centered, or that she had any lack of class.
She only showed that she's human. And like her, all of us humans make mistakes.
It's how we handle those mistakes that will determine how emotionally intelligent we truly are.
Enjoy this post? Check out my book, EQ Applied, which uses fascinating research and compelling stories to illustrate what emotional intelligence looks like in everyday life.
A version of this article originally appeared on Inc.com