Monday, September 14, 2009

Mean People?? Advice Sought;-)

The first time I saw the bumper sticker "Mean People Suck" along with a sunny smiley face, I smiled myself. I mean really, meanies - who needs 'em??

And I briefly thought of honking in solidarity with the driver who'd put this pithy statement on his bumper, but I was behind him at a stop sign and thought he might misinterpret my friendly gesture as rushing him along, and I've been flipped off for get the quandary.

Complicating the matter, I'm FAR too thin skinned. If 19 students find my class worthwhile and are satisfied, but one questions the mental state of any dean crazy enough to hire me, I tend to discount the good and keep circling back to the bad like a kid with a loose tooth that just can't leave it alone.

A fist-shaking fellow driver, irate that I forgot my blinker, a rude checkout clerk, heck Shakespeare suggesting, “The first thing we do, lets kill the lawyers. [Henry Iv]”, I take all this stuff far too much to heart.;-)

Thanks to a veritable library of self-help books, I've learned over time to pretty quickly put negative thoughts behind and just start mentally rearranging hydrangea bushes in my garden leaving those mean drivers in the proverbial dust;-). But as I know full well that if I'm blessed with another sixty years of life, I'm statistically likely to rub some people the wrong way and catch others on a bad day, I'm looking for strategies. I don't want to just "not think about it", I want to retain a sense of peace despite it and indeed in the moment of it.

How I'd love to have the sanguine nature of the Dalia Lama, who I doubt loses much sleep regardless of the accusations slung at him by the Chinese government and posted right there on the front page of the New York Times.

And another part of me realizes at some level the sullen waitress's bad day only mirrors those that have been mine. I certainly have my share of meanness, and she has her share of kindness. And really, how easy to be nice to those who are nice to us, and after four decades on this earth, shouldn't I be aspiring to a higher standard?

And who is to say she's even really being mean? I'm sure I've taken offence where none was intended despite having cut out a quote once reading "to take offence is as harmful to the peace of the universe as to give offence." My older son who shares my over-sensitive nature has come home with stories of kids who "were teasing him" and I've learned through experience to ask a lot of questions before I go into "mama bear" mode. Often the supposed digression of a fellow kindergartner is so harmless I have to stop myself from rolling my own eyes and telling him to "toughen up". Neither of us would make it in politics.

I also realize that how I treat the angry waitress back in this moment is my choice, and will have ripples after it.

I hope it doesn't stretch the bonds of filial loyalty to describe my mom, who I truly believe would take a bullet for me, as being a bit "prickly." When she's ticked off, she puts on her self-described "mad face". Recently she called and told me about a renter, long in arrears who finally sent his girlfriend over with $50, a tiny percentage of what was owed. Mom was irritated to begin with and self-aware enough to realize her irritation was not exactly bringing out the best in the girlfriend, whom she described as getting "huffy". During this conversation, my mom's new rescue dog wiggled lose and started to pee on all over the dining room rug.

They both left the conversation peeved and I couldn't help but think of the kicked dog syndrome. You probably know the one. The boss goes to work in a bad mood and gets after the man. The man goes home, now in a lousy state, and snaps at his wife. His wife, now ruffled, yells at her son. Her son, feeling wrongly blasted, kicks the dog. And while my mom would never hurt an animal, it's doubtful she or the girlfriend went about spreading much sunshine the next couple hours.

A great friend of mine is a well-respected sports writer for one of the top newspapers in the country. She's already published her first book and been approached by publishers eager for her to write her second. She's one of those natural leaders and when four of us, whose friendship goes back to fourth grade sleepovers, got together this past spring in Chicago for a girls' weekend, we naturally looked to her for dealing with travel issues from reservations to getting around the city - despite the fact she is now based on the east coast.

My writing friend, tall, blond, and never seemingly ruffled, was one of the first I approached with this issue. Here's what she responded in a recent email.

"There are just some unhappy people out there who take perverse pleasure in knocking people down. This is unfortunate. But you can't let them get you down. For better or worse, I read all comments on my stories. Some of them are really nasty. Some of them are constructive criticism that I learn from. And some are wonderful and make my day. But no matter what they say -- women should be in the kitchen, not writing about sports to my writing is so eloquent I should win a Pulitzer -- I don't put much stock in it. I'm never as bad, or as good, as they say I am.

Even when I get negative feedback, I am happy for it. At least someone read me. I may not like what they have to say, but they at least were moved to write me. I caused them to take action. That's a powerful feeling. Try and remember that the next time someone criticizes what you have to say. And remember, at the end of the day, you have a wonderful husband and two adorable children, they are the ones that truly matter. The rest is just noise. Keep writing."

And yes, I do realize how lucky I've been in friendships.

I continue to look for techniques, suggestions and golden nuggets of wisdom from those of you who, like my friend, have managed to develop thick skins but retain a warm heart.

My hope for my son at five and myself at 41 is to lighten up and take life's occasional slings and arrows, real or imagined, with good grace and good humor; not to shut down or say, be, or do less for fear of mockery or to fit in more; and for me anyway, to accept that Shakespeare probably just had a run-in with a solicitor the day he wrote that quote (copyright infringement perhaps?) and I probably shouldn't take things so personally....



  1. Hi I read this on MSE and though it doesn't seem to be going down too well on there some of it was actually what I needed to hear when i got in from work today.

    Im also a thin skinned sort of person so when i got a complaint at work it REALLY got to me and I've been worrying about it all afternoon when I really shouldn't be!

    It's a temporary summer job cleaning which ends on friday and the complaint was that I was working too slowly this morning because it took me nearly an hour to do a room. I thought it was reasonable but paid attention to how long other people took this afternoon to look for something to aim for. The person i had the complaint from took around 40 minutes to do a room working with someone else. It actually confused me even more because i always thought they were nice and not the sort of person to put in complaints without making sure they knew there was a problem. Maybe they did just have a bad morning before they came to work.

    I really need to learn to forget things, or not get upset in the first place because that's bound to keep them running round my head all day.

    Sorry I don't have any advice because i've not developed the skills you want either but good luck :)

  2. Thanks you kind soul;-). I'm definitely getting a bashing there on MSE and it was heartening to read your post here. And I SO know how you feel. I stopped reading the thread - no need to bash my head against the wall;-).

    If it's any help, I happened to come across a quote today in a book that I was reading that was sheer serendipity! It read, "Ignore negative thinkers in your midst. For often the remarks made in your direction aren't so personal as you might at first think. They are merely a projection of the speaker's own feeling of failure and discouragement." page 124, The Magic of Thinking Big.

    It surely sounds that 40 minutes for TWO people is actually LONGER than 60 minutes for one person, so I'm guessing as you say, you just caught someone that had a bad morning.

    Good wishes to you. You brought a bit of sunshine to my day and here's to hoping you can shift your thoughts to things like chocolates, great movies, good music and the fact you have a grateful person writing you now.

    Best wishes.

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