Tuesday, June 14, 2011

Which came first...the Good or the Nice?

Someone called me "tactful" today...that I just have a nice way of telling someone they didn't do their work correctly. I suppose teaching does that to you. When a set of big brown eyes gaze up at you hopefully, you learn quickly to say things in a way that still allows them to feel like a rock star as they correct their work.

It was interesting to me that the person who called me tactful, as well as the person that agreed with that statement as they asked me for help, were both men. I struggle with gender specific language, because for some that is too fuzzy of a definition...but these two were traditional, conservative, nearly 60-year-old men. I am an independent, generally stubborn, 30-something-year-old female...and although I have my conservative points, to these guys, I am a raging liberal, I'm sure. And apparently I'm tactful?

I bring this issue of gender and "tactfulness" up because I recently read an article by Barbara Applebaum from Philosophy of Education...an older article from 1998. She explored and questioned whether caring is good. Much of what we see on the surface, yes, of course it is. However, when we look at how young girls and young boys are "trained," parents tend to buy babies for the girls to nurture and trucks for the boys to crash and explore physics. Caring tends to be a more feminine "lesson?" But...take the scenarios of a woman oppressed by many years of abuse...she'll make her abusive husband dinner and serve him because she cares. That caring, then, puts her in danger and actually keeps her oppressed. Is that "good?" No. Or...the father in Yemen or one of many countries or cultures, according to the recent National Geographic, that marries off his young, 10 or so year old daughter to a significantly older man for a life of rape and childbirth to protect her from being a target for rape as an unmarried teenager. "Her husband will protect her." The father cares...some more than others...for his daughter, but feels forced to put her in danger to protect her from another that would shame the family. Again, Caring is not always good. Although...he was probably nice...arranged a nice party, a nice dress and make-up.  Women are the care-takers, the nurturers; men the protectors. Hmm. Even in my seemingly liberated bubble and privileged white American world, my feminine awareness and nurturing of students as individuals has to "save" the men from a situation they couldn't handle.

Or maybe the more important point is that I consider the person before the work I read. Behind every job, every car door, every homework assignment, every garment I wear...there is a person. My students are people. My two-year-old is a person. My president is a person. People. Like me. Feelings. Bad days. Joyful celebrations. Skinned knees. Bad Hair days. Stinky breath in the morning. People.

When I was 17, I had a philosophy professor look at me sitting in the back row of the college classroom...recognizing I was too young to be there, single me out as "the smart kid" merely because I was there instead of in a high school classroom like maybe I should have been. In that same class, after singling me out and shocking me with debates of bestiality and the innate "good" of humanity, he interrupted the class discussion to ask me abruptly why I was so "damn" happy. I had never had a teacher shock us with topic choice or use words like "damn" in a classroom...but I was not going to let it show since everyone expected me to crumble....so I smiled. I remember...I can still feel...shrugging and saying, "I..I don't know. It's nicer than being angry?" By the end of the first couple weeks of class, we became quite good friends and he frequently walked me to my car...the angry old professor and the young happy student. I learned a lot from him...mostly that a smile is rarely ignored.

Smiles. My grandfather cherished smiles. I had the honor of having grandpa live with us during his last years, and during his final breaths. He passed at 93 from pancreatic cancer. He raised 9 children and loved his wife of nearly 64 years. Loved her. He was a State Farm insurance agent...quite a large one. Many companies came in to build partnerships with him for recommendations after a claim...glass companies, auto body shops, etc. If any of you have had the honor of spending the last years of a life with someone, you may share my experience of having stories almost tirelessly repeated. But, I think, those stories had valuable lessons. Whenever I would smile, he would smile and say, "Your smile is worth a million dollars. Never stop." He would then launch into a story of a glass company sales person who came in everyday with a scowl on his face as he gave a sales pitch. Everyday my grandpa would listen and say, "Thank you, good evening." No business. A man came in...an African American man in the late 1950s, maybe early 60s, in St. Louis, came into my grandfather and asked for business. He shook hands with a smile...and my grandpa was sold. He sent everyone to the smiling man. When the scowling man found out, particularly that it was a man of color that "took" his business, he was irate and stormed into see my grandpa. "Do you know how much time and money I've lost?" My grandpa replied, "I will not send my clients to a man that cannot smile. A smile is worth a million dollars, and don't you forget it."

I love my grandpa. And that is why I smile.

Not for the million dollars. Not for the business transactions. Rather, because the people around me deserve a moment of value enough to receive a smile...and moment of kindness.

I'm not sure I can handle being "good," which according to dictionary.com hails "moral excellence," but by golly, I can handle being "nice," rather, "amiably pleasant."  Try it...tell me how it goes!!!

Monday, June 13, 2011

Observations, Studies and the Importance of Being Nice

I'm a mom...and a grad student...and a college educator....and a citizen of a community...a person that walks down the street...someone that buys milk at the store or veggies at the farmer's market...I fill my car with gas...I drive down the highway. For more years than I would like to admit, I've spent time on this planet observing people...quite possibly observing you...and consequently reflecting about myself.

I giggle, I laugh, I smile. I like people. I love individuality. I get along with most everyone...and if I don't, I actively work on getting along with everyone. I may not be great at many things...but I do respect people very well.

---Which brings me to today's story.

Today I simply needed a pen. A blue, fine tipped marker, specifically...the kind that is in the supply cabinet at work. The funny thing about this supply cabinet is that it is eagle-eye guarded by two amazing, detail-oriented admin assistants. They are wonderful at their job...and for years I've had a great relationship with them. I knocked at their door and entered.

"Hi! How are you?"

Hmm. No response...from either. Step toward the cabinet.

"I am hoping to use one of the blue markers...may I get one?" Yes...I remembered to say "may," every bit helps.

Hmm. No response. No eye contact. No grunt. I'm beginning to feel a tad awkward....unwelcome?

"Oh, here's one. Thanks so much! Have a great day!" Smile and eye contact both unnoticed and unreturned. 

Hmm...sigh. No response. No eye contact. No nothing. I wish I could say this was the first time this has happened...usually once a week. Am I that huge of a thorn? Maybe...but I bet I'd be less of a thorn if a smile and nod were forced in my direction.

Simple kindness or mere acknowledgement of another's path through this life and the ovewhelming awe that we have the opportunity to share in that path...it is a beauty too rare and too carefully intertwined to ignore or take for granted. One breath, one smile, one gesture can change the course of an entire day.

One such change happened this weekend. We have a 2-year-old...just recently 2. Language and toddlerhood exploding hourly it seems...amazing. In our rushed life...always running late...two little hand pop up to catch our pants and slow us just enough to hear, "I hold you."

I hold you.

Not "hold me." Not a whine. Not anything but two little brown eyes staring up at her rushing parents, "I hold you."

Maybe a language flip...but that statement is so profound for both my husband and me. The words alone, outside of toddler language acquisition patterning, put a giving spin on the statement...a focus outside of self...something we don't associate with infants and toddlers. In fact, we'd expect the opposite, "Me me me!" The famed childhood development guru, Jean Piaget, in fact, touts the egocentric world of the infant...an inability to consider other perspectives or experiences beyond the infant's own wants and needs. Our daughter, even if by accident, stopped and gave us want WE needed.

"I love it when you hold me, sweet baby. I hold you, too."

Piaget's description of our planet's youngest humans actually reminds me of all too many adult experiences instead...take the supply closet experience...while I have no idea the experiences and perspectives of the folks that actively surpressed acknowledgement that I was in the room, they put the needs of their immediate task ahead of my own moment of shared experience with them.

DeWall, et al., in a recent publication of Psychology, Aesthetics, Creativity and the Arts (2011), discussed a 27 year analysis of popular songs and their lyrics. Those of you old enough to fondly recall the "We are the World" rendition featuring renown musicians and performers holding hands 20-some-odd years ago may share in my own memory that we are all going to fix the world...we simply have to be a united force, and shared union. In a not-so-scientific contrast, a popular song, "Give me everything tonight" states we'd be better off taking a photo of him...and late touts that he may drink more than he should (and other things) because we may not have a tomorrow. In just those three statements, we have profound narcissistic statements, potentially unhealthy/harmful behaviors and disregard for the future. Whew. This is MY comparison...but the aforementioned study actually looked at the 10 most popular songs according to Billboard for each year between 1980 and 2007. The lyrics were studied liguistically (carefully transcribed and coded, then categorized...email me if you are interested in detailed discourse analysis, we could talk for hours....) In short, songs are more self-focused, more socially disconnected, more angry and antisocial and less emotionally positive over these past 27 years. Hmm.

Considering many dollars are poured from the music industry into research regarding popular interests and social patterns of its consumers...there are some interesting implications for societal "niceness."

Hence...this blog. I have a simple philosophy...Just Be Nice. This is my space to share it...my thoughts and observations. I'm not a psychologist, but I am an educational researcher....and don't forget, I am a person. Just. Like. You.