I’m sharing these general policies not because I want to tell people what to do, but because I’ve gained so much in a short time from trying to follow them. There’s nothing difficult about actually doing any of these things. The trouble is remembering.
1. Before you meet up with someone, decide you’ll be a good experience for that person today
When I’m about to head out and meet someone, usually the act of shutting off the lights and collecting my keys reminds me to do something: to leave with the intention of being especially good company when I arrive. Sometimes I forget by then, but most of the time that intention seems to affect me the whole way there.
More than anything, being a good experience for someone means giving thought to what that person might have been hoping to get out of this visit with you. They probably want to see a relatively pleasant (and present) version of their friend, not a preoccupied or distracted version. They probably want to have some of their thoughts validated or at least listened to.
When I don’t do this, presumably I end up mostly concerned with my end of the experience, and it probably goes okay. But when I remember to consider what “good company” might be for this person I’m with right now, visits with people can leave us both on a better trajectory for the day, and maybe for our friendship too.
Sometimes you just won’t be in this space. You may need to vent or ruminate aloud about something and that’s fine — that’s what friends are for. But make sure you notice when it’s the other person who needs that.
2. Don’t make comments or jokes about people’s names or bodies
If you can be certain about anything in life, it’s that anyone named April or June has heard a thousand idiotic calendar jokes. Don’t be another idiot.
Jim Schwartzenberger already knows his name is really long and hard to spell, and he doesn’t want hear it in your fake Austrian accent.
John knows he weighs more than most people, but he may not want to be called “Big Guy.” Even though he’s too polite to say so, he doesn’t want to hear anyone’s lighthearted ribbing about all-you-can-eat buffets and broken chairs.
Dan has already noticed he’s really tall. He doesn’t want to try out for the Lakers. He also probably doesn’t especially like being called Daniel Boone or Dan the Man. People usually love hearing their own name, as Dale Carnegie famously told us 80 years ago now, but stick to the version they use themselves.
There is just so little to gain by making light of people’s names or bodies, and so many ways it can annoy, bore or hurt people. Somehow it’s still really common. Few of us like having these two extremely personal things evaluated or made into a topic of conversation. Just don’t go there, as a rule.
3. No ad hominem
Ad hominem is what it’s called when you try to win an argument by criticizing the other person, rather than the point they’re making. It can be subtle (“Young people often don’t realize this, but…”) or overt (“His book must be bullshit — he still wears pleated pants.”)
It happens pretty easily in face-to-face debates, but it happens all the freaking time on the internet, where you feel like you’re interacting with text and not a living creature. We often don’t even realize we’re doing it. I have this phrase written on an index card pinned to the bulletin board above my desk, because I know I need a standing reminder.
Something really amazing happens in a discussion when both sides privately commit to avoiding ad hominem: the topic actually gets discussed, and learning takes place. People feel free to change their minds because they don’t have to defend themselves just to defend their view.
The fix is easy: when you’re in a disagreement, ask yourself if you’re addressing the person or the point. If you have to, pretend it’s your grandmother making the opposing argument.
4. Get off your fucking phone when you’re with people
I’m leery of “The world is going to hell” kinds of complaints, but I don’t think I’m the only one who’s noticed a creeping tolerance of once-appalling phone behaviors. It’s increasingly common to walk by a restaurant patio and see a table of four or more, at which every person is sitting silently, head bent, looking at their electronic device. We all have a right to do what we like, of course, but politeness isn’t a matter of rights, it’s a voluntary offering of respect.
I’m most disturbed by this creeping tolerance because I catch myself absently playing with my phone too, without having consciously decided to. The gratification-seeking part of my mind is taking advantage of this new zeitgeist where virtually any moment outside of a job interview is fair game for tending to a screen in your hand. Not only is it impolite, but whenever we do it we’re helping to normalize it just a little bit more.
Whether or not you do it too sometimes, you definitely know the feeling of your listener’s attention dropping away from what you’re saying, as they peek at their phone and start swiping away. It shouldn’t be a particularly valiant thing to decide not to do this to people.
A friend gave me a quick way to determine whether slipping out your phone might be rude. If it’s a situation in which it would be rude to leave for the bathroom without excusing yourself, then it’s probably rude to use your phone without excusing yourself too.
5. Be kind to people who are at work
When it’s your day off, it’s easy to forget that many of the people you’re interacting with are at work. The quality of the interactions they have with you and people like you is a big part of whether they love or hate their job.
We’ve all had nightmare workdays, when the whole world seems to be conspiring to make your day more difficult. And we also have those days when everything’s flowing like a dream. Both of these often hinge on how reasonable and patient our customers, co-workers and contractors are being with us that day.
To understand the significance of this, just think of a particularly bad day you had at work, and how much it would have meant to you if, in the middle of your mini-nightmare, a customer or passer-by made an unexpected gesture of compassion to you. It can be as simple as giving you space to do your work (just ask roadside construction workers about this one.) Or at the very least, being careful not to blame you for their frustrations with the product or the company (just ask tech support people or restaurant servers.)
Work is hard, and we can make it much less hard for others with just a little bit of consideration. There have been so many times when someone surprised me with kindness during a shift in which I expected resistance from the whole world. The effect can turn a day around.
In many ways this is a scaled-down version of rule #1. When you’re in line, decide you’ll be a better-than-expected experience for this clerk or cashier. It doesn’t cost you a thing, and it’s worth so much.
Photo by Guwashi999