I don’t get no respect. —Rodney Dangerfield
Back in the late 1990’s and early 2000’s, I was experiencing volunteer-itis, a condition known as the swelling of volunteer activities. I served on four church committees, was an active member of a Rotary Club, and was heavily involved in a national association. I was a bit overextended even though I enjoyed the opportunity to serve. After six straight years of various church committees, I finally finished out my last term and was looking forward to fewer meetings on my calendar each month.
About three months after my last assignment, I got a call from a man in our church. He wanted me to consider serving three more years on a different committee. In a calm Christian voice, I said, “Bill, put the phone down, slowly step away, and no one will get hurt.”
We both had a good laugh. But in the back of mind, I couldn’t help but feel that the organization didn’t respect the fact that I had served my time, so to speak, and needed a break. Their approach felt somewhat discourteous as they tried to squeeze more blood from a lemon and rope me in again (I think I mixed up those metaphors).
It reminds me of that famous line from The Godfather when Michael Corleone said, “Just when I thought I was out, they pull me back in.”
A contrast to requesting too much is no response at all. Several years ago, my wife and I wanted to volunteer for a local service organization. Being new to the area, we felt it would be a nice way to get involved in the community. On three separate occasions, we submitted the necessary paperwork expressing our interest in volunteering and listing the skills we could offer. Over a two-year period of time, we got no response from anyone in the organization. So, after hearing nothing, we pursued other opportunities.
Then, about six months later, I got a call from someone in the very same hadn’t-followed-up organization who asked if I would be willing to redesign their website. Wait, what? This was not a skill that I had nor was it something I wanted to do. In my most respectful volunteer voice, I said, “What the heck is wrong with you people!”
OK, I didn’t say that. Instead, I politely declined by indicating that my time was already committed to another project. Not only did their lack of follow-up lead to losing two new volunteers, it sent a discourteous message that we weren’t worth the effort.
And when it comes to a lack of respect, you can see examples all over social media. Last year, a famous actor posted a photograph of her two young sons at the beach. Immediately, people attacked her parenting skills because the boys had long hair. She had simply shared a picture of two healthy, happy, long-haired boys enjoying the beach. And based on this, she was accused of neglect. I think the true crime was that those who judged her neglected to embrace an attitude of respect and courtesy.
More recently, I watched a conversation unfold on Facebook that probably won’t surprise any of you. A colleague made a potentially offensive statement and then received several respectful counterarguments. Rather than simply acknowledging the different perspectives or offering his own respectful counterargument, this guy dug in his heels and continued to aggressively defend his position. His comments suggested that anyone who disagreed with him was wrong and his perspective was the only one that mattered. Well, as you can imagine, the conversation unraveled and the more he dug in, the worse it got. It was like hitting a tennis ball against a wall. No matter how clever you think you are, the wall will always win. Sadly, my colleague came across as quite insensitive as he posted more and more discourteous comments.
These days, it seems that aggressively rude behavior is the norm. When it comes to a differences of opinions, the phrase, “You’re a ridiculous, uninformed idiot” is more common than, “Oh, thank you for that insight.”
Why is it that we can’t respond to alternative perspectives with more courtesy? Do we think that we’re right and everyone else is wrong? Do we fear that understanding someone else’s view suggests that we’re giving credibility to a position we don’t support? Do we really believe that vinegar will attract more bees than honey?
I was raised to respect people because we are all…well…people. Then, in social work school, I was taught to go a step further and to try to empathize with others—especially those whose experiences are different than mine. And even though there might be a voice in my head that occasionally says, “You’re a ridiculous, uninformed idiot,” I don’t say it out loud. Instead, I try to say, “Hmm, that’s interesting” while attempting to understand.
Empathy is tough. However, if we can adjust our “knee-flexes” (those knee-jerk reflexes) and show a little courtesy, I wonder if we might just find that some of the friction gets smoothed out. In fact…
I wonder what would happen if everyone agreed to respond to discourteousness with kindness and understanding?
I wonder what would happen if we embraced the concept put forth by Mahatma Gandhi and Martin Luther King, Jr. who suggested that non-violence and love can be powerful weapons against intolerance?
And I wonder what would happen if we used social media to build one another up rather than to tear each other down?
As we head into this contentious election, I hope we are all passionate about our beliefs, about the issues we support, and about the people for whom we vote. But perhaps along the way, we can also embrace the idea that we have a far greater chance of bridging gaps when we show courtesy and respect for each other.
Then, maybe we can change the script to, “Just when I thought I was out, they pull me back in…for a hug.”