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Be Kind, Not Polite
November 30, 2020
“I was raised to not look directly at people who are different than I am.” This statement, made by one of the participants in the Society of Ingenious Women Idea Lab, made me shift

uncomfortably in my chair. We were discussing the well-intentioned but tone-deaf attempts of our parents to raise us to be polite, to be “nice” girls, always aware of the feelings of other people.

I realized that this was my experience, too. “Don’t stare,” my mother told me at the mall, as a young boy in a wheelchair passed by, pushed by a woman juggling packages and coats. Forty years later, I realize that making someone feel unseen is more disrespectful than staring, and it precludes genuine human interaction.

In my youth, I avoided the gaze of individuals who looked different than me, in an effort to be respectful. I wince as I wonder how many people over the years felt dismissed by my disingenuous politeness. After all, what can you really know about anyone just by looking at them, even if they look just like you?

To my way of thinking today, lumping people who share certain characteristics into a group is another way to unsee them. For example, identifying a person by a label that pertains to a large group of people—whether it be defined by race, gender, or class—may feel more respectful, but the person who gets assigned that label may not be comfortable with the association.

Each person will always be biased in favor of self, which is a good thing, because we all need to take care of ourselves. Today, however, it is hard to know exactly how to show up in the world because people are so quick to be offended by the words or actions of other people.

I am stepping away from what I learned about politeness and political correctness to show up as a genuine human being, willing to engage with other people. Messy and imperfect, I am bound to offend with clumsy words and misguided intentions, and I am willing to learn. To that end, I set some standards for myself to improve my relationships with diverse people, because diversity is necessary to move society forward.

Here’s what I am doing:

1) Treat people not as I want to be treated, but as they want to be treated. Let them know how I want to be treated in return.

2) Be open to listening to others’ perceptions. There is a grain of truth in every observation. What is that grain of truth?

3) Remember that people are individuals, just because they look and act a certain way, do not assign them characteristics of a particular group.

4) Be kind, not nice. Being kind means engaging on a genuine level with another person in a respectful way as opposed to a polite way.

How do we celebrate the differences in each other? Seems to me that you can’t help treating people through the lens of your bias. This is natural and normal. However, we need to respect individuals for who they are. It is not enough to treat people the way you want to be treated — you also have to consider how they want to be treated, and to do this requires stepping back from how you’ve been conditioned to see the world. Growth is a messy process. There are no easy, quick answers. The best way to move forward is to give grace to yourself and to others as we engage in the work to figure it out.

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What’s Your Bias?
November 23, 2020
In the Alfred Hitchcock classic Rear Window Jimmy Stewart plays Jeff, a photographer confined to bed with a broken leg, who spends his days looking out the window onto a courtyard. Amused and bemused, he observes his neighbors, witnessing various displays of behavior from silly to unseemly, eventually using his observations to solve a murder. (It is a great movie if you are looking for something to watch.)

During the pandemic, I feel a certain kinship with Stewart’s character, as I, amused and bemused, look out at the world through the window provided by my computer screen. I’ve witnessed reactions to COVID-19, the outrage over the murder of George Floyd, and the polarization of the American people during a contentious presidential election.

My observations led me to ask questions of myself, and to a sudden awareness of the personal and societal biases that have shaped my beliefs and my life.

I checked Merriam-Webster to make sure I understood the nuance of the word, and was surprised to learn that bias is “an inclination of temperament or outlook especially: a personal and sometimes unreasoned judgment: PREJUDICE.” I had always considered bias to have a negative connotation, but this definition is more neutral.

Human beings are undoubtedly born with inclinations, and the mores and preferences of our parents and society combine with those inclinations into a set of personal beliefs that automatically govern individual behavior. This, in turn, becomes biological programming, allowing us to move efficiently through the world.

Without biases, we would quickly become paralyzed, overwhelmed with information. Our programming makes decisions for us so that we don’t even have to think about our preferences anymore. It is perfectly normal to be biased in favor of yourself, but biases become a problem when they limit or inhibit the freedoms of other people, especially because we are usually unaware that we are biased.

Just as Jeff solved a mystery through the power of his observation, I am examining the puzzle of my own personality, using various techniques to unpack my biases in favor of creating stronger, more diverse relationships.

When you discover one of the biases that is limiting you (and everyone has negative biases, so you will find them), here are some techniques that may help you unravel them:

Own it with honesty, vulnerability, courage, and curiosity
Practice active listening skills in all conversations. What do you notice about the other person from this perspective?
Ask yourself, “What are three things I cannot know about the other person just by looking at him or her?”
Seek out thoughtful opinions and perspectives from people of backgrounds and experiences different from yours. Ask, “How much am I like them?”

Becoming comfortable with examining personal bias is, in itself, a skill, one that grows the more it is practiced with patience and commitment. As a species, we have the unique ability to recognize our limitations. Our ingenuity lies in the capacity to design a plan to grow beyond them.

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