Friday, September 13, 2013

To tell it like it is... or not

There was an object lesson that I used once with a group of children which involved squeezing a tube of toothpaste out and writing “words” on a piece of paper with the paste. The group soon discovered that while the “Words” came out easily enough, it was next to impossible to return the paste to the tube. It is just as hard to remove words from the atmosphere once they have been said.

In the movie, You’ve Got Mail, Kathleen Kelly bemoans her inability to come up with a response when provoked; she gets tongue-tied and later spends hours mulling over the things she should have said. Joe Fox responds that he has the opposite problem. He finds that, instead of smiling and moving on when irritated, his “Mr. Nasty” appears, revealing all of the arrogance, condescension and the secret hateful parts that should not be out and about. He says to Kathleen, “Wouldn't it be wonderful if I could pass all my zingers to you and then I would never behave badly and you could behave badly all the time and we'd both be happy? On the other hand, I must warn you that when you finally have the pleasure of saying the thing you mean to say at the moment you mean to say it, remorse inevitably follows.”

Kathleen does indeed experience that release, that surge of power in saying what you are thinking at the moment you think it. And as Joe Fox warned her, she feels remorse. “And as I waited, someone else showed up: a man who has made my professional life a misery. And an amazing thing happened. I was able, for the first time in my life to say the exact thing I wanted to say at the exact moment I wanted to say it. And, of course, afterwards, I felt terrible, just as you said I would. I was cruel, and I'm never cruel. And even though I can hardly believe what I said mattered to this man - to him, I am just a bug to be crushed - but what if it did? No matter what he's done to me, there is no excuse for my behavior.”

 There has been a trend in recent years, a sad trend, involving abrasive people believing they have a right to “Tell it like it is.” The problem is that “telling it like it is” is only from their perspective. Abrasively, persons of this ilk feel that their opinion on a situation or another person is supreme and that they somehow are more than entitled to share their unkind thoughts, but actually deserve to speak them loudly and pointedly. Is it the feeling of momentary power or feeling of such self-rightness that it cannot be contained? Generally, the response is not one of “Thank you, buddy! You really set me straight! I’m so very glad you decided to tell me exactly how you feel about me or this situation in such straight-forward and strong language.” No, that is a highly unlikely reaction. The usual response is a burnt bridge. If there ever is something that needs to be discussed, my mother used to say “You catch more flies with honey than you do with vinegar.” Given a bouquet of flowers, one tends to celebrate roses not thorns.

 “It is a wise thing to be polite; consequently, it is a stupid thing to be rude. To make enemies by unnecessary and willful incivility is just as insane a proceeding as to set your house on fire. For politeness is like a counter--an avowedly false coin, with which it is foolish to be stingy,” wrote Arthur Schopenhauer in Wisdom of Life and Counsels and Maxims. Rudeness, albeit with great conviction, does not build up relationships – it tears them down. Edmund Burke once said that “Rudeness is the weak man’s imitation of strength.”

These individuals who are infatuated with the idea of speaking their minds and “telling it like it is” don’t do this merely when confronted or irritated. They unleash their opinions or judgments on any manner of occasion. I’ve seen it released when someone was trying to be helpful, when someone was providing a listening ear, when someone was under a great deal of stress and hoping for advice. The unsuspecting recipient is left feeling devalued – and really, only the self-absorbed can feel powerful in devaluing another being.

 As for me, I would rather be Kathleen Kelly, unable to have zingers roll of her tongue when faced with provocation. Walking away politely is much more dignified. Yes, mental rolling about of those things that could have been said is bound to happen – but those things are so much better locked tightly away in Pandora’s box rather than allowed unbridled rampage. Indeed, I would rather lose sleep over not saying unkind things than to feel terrible and lose sleep over having said words that can never be taken back.