“Your scarf is very pretty!”
“Why thank you!”
My daughter has wandered again. I turned from my frozen pizza decision to see that she, in her Super Girl costume (because it’s Saturday and she’s five…), is delivering thankfully appropriate compliments to random strangers. This time, a woman’s sunny yellow scarf has attracted her. I call her back hoping she won’t see the nearby cookies.
“Kiddo, it’s kind of you to make people happy.”
“Thanks! Can I have a cookie?”
There are many things my daughter gets from me, including a love of cookies, but I hope that kindness is too. I’m a firm believer in the value of overt friendliness. Part of that is because I’m Midwestern-it’s in my blood.
We’re regionally known for being almost oddly friendly. We are a culture of awkward door-holders and intersection waygivers. We eat weird side dishes our aunties ‘found online’ at Thanksgiving, and wear ugly shirts because the giver is coming over. We’re just friendly.
Or So I thought-The Rudeness Rise
Then this election happened. Suddenly namecalling, and harassment became “acceptable” political speech. It seems we’ve lost the capacity for passionate, civil debate. Even those who didn’t verbally engage in person, shared vitriolic posts online thinking-“it’s just Facebook”.
However, this speech rarely stays online. What we repeatedly see and write, we say, and I’ve seen this rudeness leaking through. From random encounters to less patience in grocery lines; we’re less kind.
I also noticed a great deal of attention in this cycle against what the right called “PC language.” In fact, one commentator claimed that the swing, across the board, to the right was in part a backlash against the diversification of both our culture and our language.
But is PC language bad?
Academically, I understand the reluctance to change language habits. LaRey Barna says there are six barriers to intercultural communication. One of them is uncertainty and anxiety which makes it harder to adapt. Also, if we’re called out for a behavior we work to maintain our identity as a good person often by discounting the criticism.
I went on a month-long US tour that was dedicated to intercultural learning. There I met a contingent of Howard University students. I was trying to recall the name of one of their delegation. “What does she look like?”
I replied with, “She’s tall, blue jacket…”
“Is she Black?”
“You can say Black. African American is fine too; don’t be afraid, just be respectful.” I laughed, they laughed, and I learned. That trip was worth five college degrees.
To those of us in the dominant culture, we don’t realize just how vital changing our language is to others. To me, most PC terminology is just politeness you’re not used to yet. Take pronouns for example. I had a student come out as Trans in a speech. This was a year before the ‘bathroom debate’ erupted. He recounted the difficulties using the bathroom on campus. He later told me that our class’s open listening, and then me switching pronouns helped him make it through a rough semester. That’s worth it.
There are no actual language police!
You are always free to say what you like, but none of us are free from the consequences of speech. I think it’s those consequences people fear most, and fear never leads us to noble places.
In such a climate, it’s easy to feel helpless, but there are things we can do. I’m a communicator so my first reflex is to focus on interpersonal interactions. Since the only behavior we can change is our own, let’s do something SuperGirl would do-Something radically Midwestern.
Let’s bring friendly back.
Then do more… make direct eye contact, smile and say hi. Work to pronounce names correctly, and never compensate for your mistakes with “whatever”.
Then do more. Stand with people facing bullies, and speak up for those who not present or not able to speak for themselves.
And, if you like, consider some overt verbal kindness. I use sincere compliments to engage with others. It’s pretty easy:
- Compliment something intentionally on the person (t-shirt, handbag, hair style) that you like.
- Don’t add qualifiers. If you have to say “for a____,” it’s not a compliment.
- Don’t base compliments on body type or a lack of something-like an accent.
Also, beware false compliments that are more about you than the other person.
And yes- you’re going to mess up. That’s okay! There are all kinds of intricacies in culture that destines a meeting between mouth and foot. “I’m sorry, I misspoke,” fixes almost anything if you mean it.
Of course, please keep your safety in mind. We all have varying levels of privilege that makes this easier or harder to do, so never shame those who just want or need to keep to themselves.
What good will this do?
Lots! How others react to us, our social reflection, feeds into our self-concept. Social comparison, being seen as normal, plays into who we are. That means we are literally shaped by, and are shaping the people around us, every day.
So, go out of your way to deliver some kindness and connect with new people; you’ll make the world a better place.
Take it from SuperGirl…. she got a cookie.
Lisa Pavia-Higel is a St. Louis based writer, educator and performer. By day, she’s a mild mannered Communication and Media professor at a local community college and runs her own small jewelry company, Geekery Gal. By night, she’s a stage combat fighting, comic reading, critique writing, productivity advice giving mama. She loves trying things that she’s really not very good at, like sewing, painting and writing succinct biographies. She is indulged by her little geeklet Sofia and intrepid feminist, geeky husband Matthew. She’s too long winded for Twitter, but you can tweet to her at @geekerygal