I just read an excellent piece by Michael Thompson, effectively about how to be more “likable” without taking up more social space and by being a thoughtful person. It is a wonderful set of reminders and suggestions for how to be perceived in a good light by others and simultaneously spread more positivity in this world that so sorely needs it, especially right now. Kindness, thoughtfulness, and attention can still go a long way towards healing some of what we are in.
We definitely need to consider context, however. Likability — and I might say just being a good and kind person — can certainly be an important factor in leading a fulfilling life. But I would be very interested on the perspectives of some others on this, those who don’t fall into the same societal bucket that Michael and I seem to share. I — like Mike Thompson, from all appearances — am a white male. The sorts of soft-skill-based practices he highlights in the article have more traditionally been attributed to women, and they have not always come along with things like success in work, financial advancement, or respect outside of one’s peer group, regardless of their value. Similarly, those from what we traditionally have considered minority backgrounds might have very different experiences when attempting to practice daily some of the things he espouses in his piece, and may have very different capacities for doing so.
Being a white male in our society today — and in particular being of educated, European-derived, middle-class parents — comes pre-loaded with just about all of the power-ups you could hope to have for achieving what passes for success. Only in the last several years have I (and I suspect many of us in this category) truly started to realize what an advantage that puts us at, in almost every regard. I have been afforded the superpower of being able to walk through most of life well-fed, housed, educated, with a little money in my pocket and a family safety net if everything should suddenly go to hell. I’m employed, heterosexual, married, with kids and sometimes pets. Through almost no special effort of my own, and due to little more than some fortunate twist of genetics and evolved social norms, I have had the implicit blessing of our established society that I am seen as “acceptable and trustworthy,” due to all those things above plus light skin, reasonable height, no obvious disabilities, and a solid grasp of English.
All of this adds up to what might technically be called a metric crapload of privilege. So much so that I have been largely able to walk through life without even realizing or thinking about any of this until fairly recently. You can argue about the term “privilege,” but let’s call a spade a spade: I did next to nothing to deserve many of my circumstances, and much of it comes at the historical expense of others. Sure, I grew up knowing there were people less fortunate than I and that we needed to consider and make efforts towards them. But it didn’t paint a full picture of just how tilted the scales have been.
I now know that due in large part to this combination of factors, doors in our world which would be closed and locked to many others open to me almost effortlessly. I can generally walk almost anywhere without much real concern for my safety. I can reasonably expect that I will be considered for the job/loan/mortgage I apply for, if I meet a few criteria that are relatively trivial for someone from my background… and if I don’t meet them, I am more likely to be given the benefit of the doubt and a chance. I can know that if trouble happens near, around, or to me, our law enforcement will generally take my side and accept my words. While respect still needs to be earned at some level, I tend to be shown an implicit level of respect by others without trying and which may have little bearing on who I actually am.
All of this means that I have a far easier time satisfying the most basic levels of Maslow’s hierarchy of needs than a huge percentage of our American population, giving me the time, resources, and permission to be kind and thoughtful without much consequence.
I am not better, smarter, stronger, or more virtuous than many people out there. Even so, I usually don’t have to prove myself as much or thread the ridiculous needles and hoops required of so many better, smarter, stronger, more virtuous people in our world.
For all of these reasons I can most definitely afford to be kind in my daily dealings, and take the time to listen and notice and acknowledge, and not have it negatively impact the rest of my efforts. I don’t have to generally worry that showing kindness or vulnerability will make me seem weak or damage my credibility, standing, or earning power in any meaningful way. I can afford to sit back and listen rather than needing to control the room and still be seen as competent and viable. I can make eye contact with someone and smile at a stranger and generally be confident that it will be taken in a friendly light rather than a challenge. I can take the time sit down and record notes on conversations with friends, nieghbors, and colleagues so as to better recognize them later. I can afford to buy (or better yet make) meaningful gifts for people, and I have time for the small effort it takes to listen and know what will be meaningful to them.
None of that means that I actually DO these things nearly as often as I should. Were I that better, smarter, more virtuous person I suppose I would. But the reality is that I am just another person trying to stay afloat in our world, with many of the same concerns, both petty and overwhelming, that all of us face. My challenges and struggles are just as real to me in my own context as anyone’s, and it is no one’s right to question my experience of them. As a result I often rationalize to myself why I don’t practice more thoughtfulness, or volunteer my time more, or donate more to charity. I have no real excuse, just a dawning realization of my shifting place in our larger cultural reality, and some of the responsibilities that come with it.
Having this growing awareness of my own white, male privilege comes with its own challenges… but those are so minimal that they are not worth whining about here. There is also no denying that doing all of these things from a place of compassion and kindness is getting harder for everyone as our culture moves in its current direction. Between waning amounts of human contact, trying to survive day to day on a faster and more expensive societal treadmill, and more hatred, chaos, and segregation being spread from the highest levels of our society, simple kindness and taking the time to do these things can be harder for everyone.
But none of that is an excuse. I CAN afford to be kind, thoughtful, and attentive, and it is incumbent upon me to do that as often as I can, especially towards those who don’t share my advantages. And if we are going to evolve as a country and a culture, it is incumbent upon all of us at every level to hold our challenges close and work to overcome them, but simultaneously do our best raise the ambient level of positivity, no matter what your situation.
I hope many people read and heed Mr. Thompson’s article, and I hope that we the people can learn to accept and reward kindness and thoughtfulness as core competencies for all of our human efforts, rather than seeing them as liabilities or weakness in anyone, ever.