I’ve been struggling with how to write about the following topic for a while now. Why? Because in writing this I feel like I’m inadvertently participating in the very action described in the title of this piece! That said, I think it’s an important topic, so bear with me and forgive any hypocrisy – I promise it’s a well-meant exception.
A few months ago at a dinner with friends, I found myself navigating an all-too-familiar experience: my well-educated, well-spoken female friends were talking – non-stop- about other women. These individuals – all of whom have the mental capacity to discuss anything from sociology to physics, politics and more – spiraled into a nearly forty-five minute group venting session on all the things women do that are so infuriatingly annoying. “I hate it when one eyeliner line is thicker than the other – just fix your eyeliner, I want to tell them!” said one friend. “Or what about when they (women) have stray eyebrow hairs” another interjected – “don’t you just want to fix it for them!?!”. Around and around they went.
As an expat, “detached anthropologist mode” is one of my defaults. So I sat, back, listened, and at times asked questions, trying to make sense of the chatter around me. I found myself empathetic, incredulous (“didn’t this end with high school?!“), and, most strikingly: disappointed. Eventually I took charge and steered the conversation toward something kinder and semi-intellectual (we have brains, let’s use them!). “Success!” I told myself.
That is, until I began to notice that gossip – in various forms – was happening all around me. One time it was a dinner in which people close to me discussed someone not present and how they didn’t like them. The next time it was a clique judging the sexual exploits of a peer. Another time a friend couldn’t stop going on and on about something someone else was doing – even though it was after the fact and nothing could be done to help it…That’s when I realized that negative discussions of others are endemic. They have seeped into every facet of our culture – our daily lives, even – and have permeated the social scene so deeply that it’s hard to avoid them.
In today’s world it’s seen as socially acceptable to belittle, judge, critique and assess other individuals or groups. It’s defended as “natural”, “normal” and “benign”, while the reality is that it’s the opposite. That’s because when we use our energy negatively, we do nothing but generate more negativity in the world – and that is inherently harmful to all of us.
So what are we supposed to do about all this? CAN we even do anything?? Yes, we can! Not to worry: I don’t expect any one of us to change the world tomorrow! But how cool would it be if a bunch of us consciously choose to work toward changing our behaviors and, in turn, make the world a nicer place to live in??! Sounds pretty good, huh? Here are a few things we can keep in mind (as well as a few steps we can take), to make a difference:
- Remember the following: We are all equal. A “flawless” appearance does not make you – or anyone- a better person. Nor does a diet, a skill, a race, a gender, a political affiliation or any other talent or facet of one’s life. We all hurt, we all laugh and we all really want to be in a kinder world. If we can remember this, it’ll be a lot harder to criticize or judge someone – or a group of people – for anything, let alone something trivial.
- Try your words out on yourself. When in doubt, think about what you’re going to say and insert your own name where the name of the other person would be. For example, before you call Amy a mean name, try it out on yourself. If it doesn’t feel good or sound good in your head when you think about saying it about yourself (or if you wouldn’t want to hear someone else saying it about you!), then don’t say it period.
- Vent about experiences, not people. It’s natural to need to get things off your chest from time to time. We all do it. It can be healthy, even! But how we do it is key. When venting, make sure that you’re bemoaning a situation or an action, not a person. For example “When Kathy said that in front of everyone it was so humiliating – I wish she had just waited until we were alone to point that out!” Focus your energy on what you wish had gone differently and on steps you might take in the future – not the individual who caused your upset.
- Compliments are free. Find things you like about other people and let them know it. Maybe Gwen looks AMAZING in that shade of green, Drew’s fundraised for a local animal shelter was a huge success, or Anne has a gift for cheering people up even on their lowest days. Retrain your brain to seek out the positive and use that to build up those around you.
They’re seemingly small changes, but they have the potential to add up to a hugely positive impact – and they all cost nothing to do.
If there’s one take-away today, it’s this: use your energy on you. Be an example to those around you – let your light spark theirs. Individually, we’re millions of candles. But together? Together we are an inferno. Let’s unite and show this world just how brilliant it can be.
As always, thanks for taking the time to read – I’m happy to have each one of you along for the journey!