How to be a Nicer Person

Or how to stop being an asshole.

I keep thinking that it can’t be that hard not to be an asshole.  There has been a lot of stuff coming up about bullies and trolls on the various and assorted social media sites.  I’m lucky, in a way, because I have such a small (and generally like-minded) following that no one has ever been nasty to me in an online forum.  But I read about it happening to other people and for every death threat delivered in a comments section, I have the same thought: when did this become okay?  And how hard is it to just not be an asshole?  Clearly, it’s harder than I think it should be.

Step one: Recognizing if you’re an asshole.

If you have ever threatened someone’s life or physical safety or that of his/her family over an idea, a belief, a game, an opinion, a TV show, a tweet, an article, a religion…  Okay, let’s start again.  If you’ve ever threatened someone’s life, physical well-being, or that of their family (to include pets) you are an asshole.  The only possible exception is if you threaten (or cause real bodily harm to) someone who is in the act of harming you or someone else.  For example, the guy in Texas who beat the assailant of his child to death…  he is not an asshole.  If you are in the military fighting a war, you are not an asshole.  These are the only exceptions.

Losing your shit over things you are guilty of is another good sign.  Road rage over someone not using their blinkers when they change lanes, when you also don’t use your blinkers?  You might be an asshole.

If the only socializing you do consists of tearing other people down, you are probably an asshole.  If you are mean to people you don’t know just because you can get away with it, you are probably an asshole.   If you think someone reacting to offensive language by becoming offended is their problem, you are probably an asshole.

I’m sure I could come up with other symptoms, but that covers quite a bit of territory.

Step Two: Deciding you don’t actually want to spend the rest of your life being an asshole because, let’s face it, the world just doesn’t need any more schmucks.

Are you happy?  Do you have meaningful friends?  Do you have lasting relationships with members of the sex you are attracted to?  Do you feel an incipient longing to create something that lasts instead of just tearing everything down indiscriminately?  It may be time to recognize that you’d like to become a constructive human being.

Step Three: Developing compassion.

Oddly enough, this starts with your relationship with you.  Go easy on yourself.  Stop saying such horrible things about yourself when you make a mistake.  Take a deep breath.  Recognize that you are fighting a hard battle, and credit yourself for making it this far.  Then expand that circle of compassion outward a little.  That guy that just cut you off in traffic.  Probably doing the best he can with what he’s got.  The lady who can’t make up her mind in Starbucks: fighting a difficult battle and doing what she can to make it through.  That person you’ve never met on the internet with an opinion you disagree with.  Probably just wants to make the world a better place to the best of his ability.  Go easy on yourself.  Go easy on other people.

Step Four: Take nothing personally.

See, 99.999% of what other people do isn’t about you, it’s about them.  Unfortunately, this means 99.999% of what you do isn’t because so and so said thus and such.  Taking nothing personally goes hand in hand with taking absolute responsibility for yourself and your words.  No one can make you mad.  No one can make you anything.  You choose your reaction.  We’re all trying to make it through with a collection of challenges and difficulties that are uniquely our own.  We’re all generally so absorbed in our own concerns, we have a hard time seeing other people.  That goes for you too.  Notice it in yourself when you’re getting ready to fly off the handle.  Notice it in people who you disagree with.   Their feelings and how they handle them tell you about who they are, not who you are.  Your feelings and how you manage them tells the world who you are and says nothing about the person you are blaming for your reaction.

Step Five: If you would be mad if someone said it to your mother, don’t say it to anyone else.

I’m pretty sure that doesn’t need further explanation.

Step Six: find something you’d like to build, something that makes the world a better, safer place, and focus on that.

If you don’t like people, do something for animals.  Whatever it is, find a constructive place for your energy, something that benefits someone or something other than yourself.

 

 

That’s it.  Practice a little every day and eventually, you too can become a nicer person.  Just start with the no death threats thing, because the fact that someone has to say that out loud is just sad.

 

We Interrupt Our Regular Programming for this Special Announcement

Bottom line up front: if you want a free copy of my book in exchange for a review of said book, go here.

Backstory: Story Cartel is a place where authors and readers can connect over free books and reviews.  Create a log in, peruse the books on the site, download that which looks interesting to you, agree to write a review, read a free book by an emerging author, and write a review.  Simple.  I tried it out as a reader with a book called Black.  My review is posted somewhere on Amazon – basically I tore through the book and afterwards realized there were serious flaws in the characterization.  What do you do with a book that entertains you, but has some issues?  You review it.

For my regular readers who come here for the parts where I’m addressing the big questions of how to live with integrity in a world that has completely lost all pretense of being solidly black or white, The Camellia Resistance is a fictional exploration of the same basic themes.  It isn’t autobiographical, or even semi-autobiographical, but it does address what happens after the worst thing you can think of takes place.  It is decidedly adult, unequivocally fantasy, and thoroughly dystopian.  If you haven’t already read it, here’s a chance to see what it is all about.  It will only cost you the time it takes to read and 15 minutes to tell amazon how you felt about it.

Basically, it would be a huge personal favor that I hope I can repay by entertaining you for a few reading hours.

Audrey.

The People Problem

You think your job is widgets.  It isn’t.

Your job is people.  Somewhere along the way, maybe when we stopped growing our own potatoes (and even then, there was family to manage), the output stopped being 100% of the point.  Not that output doesn’t matter.  Not that you don’t touch widgets.  But I’m willing to bet that for 99% of people, their daily work isn’t taken up in units moved from the inbox to the outbox.

Nope.  The bulk of your day is spent in people, nurturing relationships, building influence, listening, talking, arguing, managing feelings, going around so-and-so…  Because work is a social enterprise.  It is the primary social enterprise, given the death of small communities and the waning influence of churches.  It’s where we talk to people, it’s where we express ourselves.  It is the venue that excuses our runway walk through the world with this pair of shoes instead of that, this haircut, this beard, this dress, all of which say to people “this is who I am.”

Let’s face it, you don’t worry about all of that when you work from home, you don’t have to tell the dog who you are.  He can figure that out by sticking his nose in your butt.

Economies are changing.  Everything is changing.  From an input/output perspective measured in widgets, our system for working is super inefficient – because of the people.  People are the problem.  At least from one perspective.

From another perspective, we need our work.  Even the jobs we hate, and not just for the paycheck. We need our work because we are social animals.  We need the connection and it is harder and harder to find elsewhere.

To our detriment.

Childhood

Adults don’t know how to talk to children.  We bend over and ask “what are you learning in school” because once it’s behind us, we think of childhood as a foreign territory: children as being something other.  A separate animal from homoadultus.  We talk to them like we talk to foreigners, slowly and with short sentences.  Occasionally in a louder voice than is strictly necessary.

This is because we were never children.

Sure we experienced learning how to walk, and there was a time when we knew less and our mother called us to get out of bed in the morning and Ms. Johnson spanked us for kicking that dumb boy who said something rude.  But we were never distinct from ourselves, fitting into the category of other.  Maybe you can pinpoint a day when you lost your innocence, but that probably has little to do with your age at the time.

We are the same spirit all the way through.  The same eyes, the same senses, the same memory collection mechanisms whirring away between our ears.  Our experience is continuous.  We are one from start to finish, evolving minute by minute, but never not ourselves.

At three, I could walk into a room and say the one thing that was guaranteed to get everyone with their knickers in a twist.  I talk less in public now for that very reason, because I never know what that thing is going to be and it isn’t good for my bank account, this saying things that everyone is thinking and other people have the good sense not to say.  Sure I’ve evolved.  I talk less in public: that’s growth, isn’t it?

It doesn’t matter when it happened, it happened to me.  The dream of walking up a long flight of stairs in a red velvet queen’s cape.  That was me.  The dream where I found my ex’s cat in a pet store, and the damn thing bit me.  That was me too.  The nightmare of being picked up by a bulldozer and being dumped in a junkyard fire.  That was me.  The reccurring dreaming landscape, a city on a hill and the roads to get there.  All me.

The idea that we are temporarily bodies and permanently ourselves makes sense to me, because the thread that animates this body holds steady and taut, even as the flesh grows around it and then inevitably sags and deflates.

Adults don’t know how to talk to children because there are no children.  We talk to them like monkeys in the zoo: close cousins.  Cute, to be sure.  And they look at us with disdain in return because they know, even if we do not, that we are the idiots who refuse to recognize that they are just like us, just caught in a slightly different bubble of time and mostly free from the burden of paying the rent.

Naked and Afraid

Jennifer Lawrence.  Jill Scott.

Naked.

Privacy grossly violated.

White.  Black.

20’s.  40’s.

The conversations are vastly different.  People dare to criticize Jill Scott, which I find abhorrent.  For so many reasons.

1) We seem to have all agreed that feminine value is in physicality.  As if who you are, character, personality, perspective, accomplishment, kindness, none of that matters.  It’s the packaging.

The point of a gift is getting to the bits that are beneath the wrapping.  And we’re a society that is only interested in the wrapping paper and the shiny ribbons.  No child ever (well, maybe Fashion by Mayhem) got more excited over the paper than the stuff inside.  Just try bringing me an empty Tiffany’s box.  Pretty wrapping paper does not a good gift make.

I’ve been struggling with this a lot over the past year.  Because I’ve bought into it.  I mean, how can you not, when every message that comes in from the outside world is about thigh gaps and crows feet and women over 40 being invisible.

Look, we’re social creatures.  The people who survived were the ones that were best integrated into their societies.  We’re programmed for integrating the external messaging into our internal lives.  So yes, do we individually have the responsibility to reject bullshit messaging?  Of course.  But show me someone who can completely disregard what their society values and focuses on and I’ll show you a psychopath.  It isn’t all on the individual here.

2)  When did it become okay to be an asshole just because you can?  Bullying is universal, and the higher you fly, the more engaged a certain segment of society will be in shooting you down, but really, people.  Everyone you meet is fighting a hard battle.  Kindness is free, and it is never wasted.  If you can’t be nice, be silent.  It isn’t that hard.

3)  Why is it that we’re only having this conversation about the female body?  Not that men don’t feel the same pressure about their externals, but I don’t think it is to the same degree.

4) By any standard (except the thigh-gap one) Jill Scott is a beautiful woman.  And even if she didn’t have that smile, or that velvet skin, or the body of a goddess, she’d still be beautiful.  Because that’s a woman who has shown up for life, made mistakes, learned from them, and chosen to offer up the best parts of herself to the world through music.  Of all the people who want to talk about her body, what have any of you contributed to art, culture, or the comfort of people you’ve never even met?

Have the courage to build something yourself before you tear someone else down.

5)  Beauty is a social construct, and it reflects two basic functions of survival: surplus and fertility.  When only rich people could afford the calories or the leisure to carry a few extra pounds, then plump arms and full faces were beautiful.  Fertility, or the appearance of fertility, well, that doesn’t need to be explained.  The species must be propagated.  Perhaps the fertility thing can’t be changed, but there was a time when a good character was at least as valuable as good bone structure.

We could have that again.

Supply and demand, people.  The entire culture will shift to sell us what we choose to buy.  Imagine if we refused to buy magazines with people on the front who were mean?  What if assholery were as “unattractive” as crows feet or stretch marks, or five extra pounds?  We could make that happen, dollar by dollar.  Johnson and Johnson would stop selling us anxiety if we stopped buying it.

So yes, it is true that we are social creatures and we take social censure to heart.  But we are also part of the society, and we can turn that power around.

Word Strategy

Language is a tool.  We use it to arrange the world in our favor, to remember, to be remembered, to connect, to understand, to learn, to teach.   I have a hard time conceptualizing what being human would be like without language.  We’d be no more than amoebas bumping into each other.  Language is our only means of escaping the boundaries imposed by the macro-impermeability of our skin.

We use words to get what we want.  Or to try to get what we want.  But we tend to do it badly, because the words we are comfortable with, the words that make us feel safe, are not the words we mean.

The cafeteria in our building has gotten dismal, so I walked across the street for lunch.  I wasn’t there to see the sparking incident, but I got the aftermath: two grown men yelling at each other even as the distance between them increased, with one guy yelling behind him “you arrogant sonofa…” and the other waving his hand and saying “yeah, yeah, yeah.”

News flash:  when you start insulting someone, they stop listening.  If your point is to vent your annoyance, go for it.  If your point is to communicate something meaningful, you might as well keep your mouth shut because all of the incoming channels shut down as soon as the attack begins.

Think of every person in the whole world like their own little mobile castle, fully armed and prepared for siege.  They walk around with the gates half-open, but a guy standing behind them ready to pull up the bridge over the moat at the first hint of a threat.  Words are the emissaries you send across the space.  As long as those words feel safe, the gate stays open.  As soon as the words become threatening, the bridge goes up, the gates go down, and while you can certainly lob some doozies over the wall, and they can create some lasting damage when they land, you aren’t getting behind that gate again until you can prove that you’re safe.

In my professional life, I talk about the author’s obligation to avoid creating resistance.  As a writer, you create resistance when you make it painfully obvious to your reader that the voice they are hearing in their head as they read is not their own.  You do this in any number of ways – by breaking the rules of suspended disbelief; by having atrocious grammar or spelling errors; by ignoring the logic of the world you’ve created; trite language; making your reader feel stupid…  I’ve just realized that the list of ways to create resistance in your reader is impossibly long to document.

As a user of words, you have two choices: bump along as you were using the words you are comfortable with and confused as to why you aren’t getting through, or get strategic with the realization that, to get what you want, you’re going to get a lot further when the other party is receptive and the only way you can influence his/her receptivity is by doing your damndest to avoid creating resistance.  You’ve got to be willing to put the work into thinking about it, thinking about what you are comfortable saying, what you mean, and between the two, which is going to be easier to receive on the part of your conversational partner.

Is it manipulative?  Yes.  But everything we do is manipulative.  Manipulative doesn’t have to be a bad thing.  Besides, when in the midst of a relationship negotiation, saying what you’re comfortable with is as much of a manipulation as deciding you’re going to say what you mean.  If threatening to leave feels authentic, but you’re saying it because you want him to beg you to stay or because you’re terrified he’s going to say he wants to leave first…  well, that’s a manipulation.  So what happens if you kill the adversarial posture and say what you mean.  I’m hurt and I’m scared and I want to be connected to you.  Are you vulnerable?  Yes.  But no more vulnerable than when you were throwing word-bombs and hoping he’d hug you in response.  At that stage, it is going to hurt anyway.  You might as well say what you mean.

It’s like my uncle explained to my ex husband: you can be right or you can be happy.  You can use the word strategies that you are comfortable with (and most of us are comfortable with a defensive verbal posture) or you can set your comfort zone aside and say what you mean.  When it comes to love (of whatever variety), I think the connections are way too critical to risk.  Tell your truth as gently and as honestly as you can.  If you lose, you lose, but at least you lost on your best effort.  I think that’s better than losing on a half-ass attempt.  If you lose on half-assed, don’t you always wonder what you might have gained if you’d simply told the truth?

No regrets.  Whatever it takes to get to no regrets, do that.

The Argument Before the Argument

Words are vehicles for transmitting bits of yourself into someone else.  I bet you can think of something nice that someone said to you ten years ago.  I bet you know that person’s name, maybe what they were wearing at the time, and what their face looks like.  Similarly, I’m pretty sure you can look back ten years and see someone who said something hurtful to you.  Words are immortality, in a way, because so long as someone remembers our words, we live on.

Yes, so many of our words are throw-aways.  We talk about nothing and everything.  We talk to keep the air full of something.  We talk to remember that we exist.  And it isn’t always possible to know which words are going to be kept and which ones will vanish.  Not every conversation is a keeper.

But those conversations that are intended to be kept, the ones that make or break friendships, or love.  I want to talk about the words that we use in those.

Over the past week, I’ve talked to a couple of people contemplating serious conversations with people they love over the state of a relationship.  The pre-conversation conversation starts with “can I say this?” and then something comes out that I know has been considered and edited and rearranged for days, if not weeks, if not years.

And always, these things that we want to say are a hand extended by reaching around the shield.  Comments that give and take in the same breath.  Designed to hedge the bet about how the other guy is going to react, or to manipulate the other side of the conversation.  Part posturing, part supplication.  We’ve all done it, we’ve all been on the receiving end of it.  And it is maddening.

With one friend, we started out with “why do you hate me” and ended up with what she really wanted to say, which was “can we try this again?”  “Why do you hate me” is easier to say.  It is less vulnerable.  There isn’t the possibility of a “no” at the end of it.  It is demanding rather than giving, it seeks an outcome rather than saying what it is.  There’s not much by way of honesty in it, unless you count the honest desire for engagement behind it.  “Can we try this again” is straightforward.  It opens you up for a clear, clean “no.”  It is vulnerable.  It admits a wanting for something that you might not be able to have.  But it is also distinctly lacking in coercion, manipulation, passive-aggressiveness, or attempts to control the outcome.  It’s terrifying.  It’s impossibly vulnerable for someone who has been hurt – and we’ve all been hurt.

I saw some back and forth over text from another friend.  “I know you’ve moved on…” one party said.  Well, did they know that?  Or was that a defense mechanism and a backhanded way to ask “have you moved on?”  And the conversation disintegrated from there until no one knew what the other guy was saying because the words that were being used hadn’t been born clean.  The words were stuck trying to carry too much that was at odds with itself.

We all plan these conversations.  We argue before we argue, working out strategy about how we’re going to play the different aspects of our position, using our real pain in manipulative ways to orchestrate the empathy in our favor. It isn’t like you aren’t thinking about how to have that conversation already.

Unfortunately, the reality is that it is going to hurt either way you go about it.  All of your fancy words and making the meaning double up on itself until no one can tell which is sincere and which is sarcastic; even your manipulations, trying to nudge things in your favor, even that is going to hurt.  Negotiating relationships hurts.  Full stop.  It’s scary.  And there is no way to protect yourself from the terror, at least not if you want an authentic connection.

From a writer.  As a writer.  As someone who thinks about using words well all the damn time.  Really.  All the damn time.  Play that conversation out.  With every iteration, push your words closer to simplicity and closer to the naked truth until you can get to the plainest words there are.  Words that don’t try to shape the other person’s answer.  Just the words.  Remember: this is someone you love.  This is someone you believe you need in your life.  This is someone who makes everything better when they’re in the room.  They fart sunshine and shit glitter.  You can’t stop thinking about them.  It’s been years and you’re still missing them.  They’re still all you can see.  The first thing on your mind in the morning; the falling asleep breath on your pillow holds their name.  Start with the truth, and let the truth set you free.

I miss you.  I love you.  I want you to be happy, and I want to be a part of your happy. What can I do to make that happen?