“That’ll never work.” There is nothing that sets me off quite like this expression, or anything akin to it. I’ve learned not to be bothered much by critics, griefers, trolls, or haters. Naysayers, though, are in a class unto themselves. It’s not that I let naysaying stop me from doing whatever I want to do. It just boggles my mind that people exist whose default mode is to try to stop other people from doing things, usually for no reason. I’ve started to realize that naysaying is a helpful sign that I’m doing something interesting and worth the trouble.
Most people are caught up in default mode, and why wouldn’t they be? It works well enough. Do something you’ve done before, when other people around you are doing it, and you’re safe. This is the tribal mindset that has allowed humanity to survive, even though we’re weaker than every animal in at least one respect. No fangs, no talons, no prehensile tails, poor night vision, relatively unable to leap, swim, run, or climb trees... What we do well is to communicate and work in groups. That means the outlier who deviates from behavioral norms is probably either wasting resources, disrupting trust, or endangering group safety. Right?
Naysayers are trying to protect you.
Let’s do the taxonomy. How do naysayers differ from other types of critics?
Critique is constructive criticism that comes from an established relationship with a defined expectation of that critique. A teacher, boss, manager, mentor, agent, coach, trainer, choreographer, conductor, editor, or peer reviewer is formally required to critique your work, your presentation skills, and possibly your external appearance. Never accept anything less, because professional critique is the only path to excellence.
Criticism, on the other hand, is negative and demotivating. It’s personal. It’s designed to cut someone down, discourage, belittle, or insult. Worse, it almost always comes from people who do not have an established critique relationship. A critic is someone who has no business stating an opinion to this person, in this situation, about this thing. Criticism from critics can still be very useful, both from informational content and from the free practice session in building resilience and grit. That’s no excuse for the critic, though. Why not focus on improving yourself and lead by example?
A troll thinks it’s funny to upset people. Trolls love to start arguments for the sake of arguing. Trolling is making deliberately provocative statements in the hope that someone will take the bait. Trolls feel excitement, delight, and satisfaction.
A griefer seeks to disrupt someone else’s enjoyment of an activity. This is a gaming term, but it works in other areas. For instance, I used to have two young bachelor neighbors who would try to drown out each other’s stereos; the upstairs guy would even put his speaker facedown on the floor. Griefers feel vengeance, a sense of purpose, and sometimes triumph in addition to the usual feelings of trolling.
A hater is annoyed by the idea of other people enjoying themselves or succeeding in general. A hater prefers to dislike things rather than to appreciate them. Dominant emotions of a hater are disgust, irritation, and contempt.
A naysayer seeks to explain why something can’t be done, why it won’t work, why it’s a bad idea, or why a particular person will not succeed. Naysayers think they are intelligent; they’ve mostly stepped outside of emotion while naysaying.
What I love about naysayers is that, unlike the other groups, they usually aren’t doing what they do deliberately. Naysayers don’t know they are naysayers!
The other thing I love about naysayers is that, if you don’t tell them your plans, they can’t naysay you.
Let me go over that again, and make sure that what I am saying is perfectly clear. If you do not tell anyone what you are planning to do, then they can’t criticize you or try to talk you out of it. Therefore, the easiest way to avoid naysayers is just to carry out your plans without advertising them in advance. You don’t need permission (unless you do). Almost always, you can move right ahead and do what you want.
I’m a big believer in following all applicable rules and regulations. This makes my life really simple, straightforward, and easy. I’ve never had a speeding ticket because I don’t drive above the speed limit. I get to go in the short line at airport security because I passed the background check and became a Trusted Traveler. I have great credit, which basically allows me to do whatever I want and pay less while I do it. The interesting thing here, though, is that almost everything a person would want to do is legal. It’s allowed.
I’m allowed to sign up for any class I want. I’m allowed to buy tickets, get a visa, and travel almost anywhere I want. I’m allowed to eat anything I can put in my mouth and do any physical activities that suit the human body, including bend my knees backward, although I doubt I’d like that very much. I’m allowed to apply for or quit any job I want. I’m allowed to date or not date anyone I want. I’m allowed to adopt a kid or a pet, buy whatever I want, live basically wherever I want, and do whatever I want for entertainment. Why would anyone try to talk me out of any of that?
Why would they care?
Seriously. WHY WOULD THEY CARE?
I’ve had people try to talk me out of:
Enjoying particular songs or bands
Reading literary fiction
Going to college
Riding a bicycle
Visiting New Zealand
Keeping a pet parrot
Using Tabasco sauce
Going to Las Vegas
Moving to California
Eating Mexican food
Signing up with the organ donor registry
Using exclamation points
Renting a house
Et cetera, et cetera, et cetera
On the other hand, people have tried to talk me into:
Joining their religion
Eating hot dogs at the fairground
Adopting a kitten
Wearing acrylic nails
Getting a tattoo
Getting up early to make their coffee
Allowing anonymous comments on my blog
Buying expensive nutritional supplements
Reading Fifty Shades of Gray
Switching to an Android phone
Buying things from mall kiosks
Renting to own
It’s almost like people think you should do anything and everything, as long as it was someone else’s idea, but think twice before you do anything that was your own idea.
When dealing with any kind of criticism or negativity, there are two important considerations: 1. Could this be true? 2. Does this person have any credibility or credentials? Just because someone is not a credible source does not necessarily rule out their ability to give helpful advice. Is it actually a valid point? If I hear the same thing from two people who don’t know each other, either they’re both right or it’s an example of mainstream groupthink. Or... both? Either way, it’s helpful to know where to find the baseline and recognize common reactions. Sort of like knowing the high and low temperatures for the day.
Naysayers are simply stating an opinion. They’re not the laws of physics. They’re not the law of the land, either. I believed the person who told me I shouldn’t wear red, until I did a modeling shoot and the designer told me that “red is your color.” After that, I realized I had based my wardrobe around the opinion of, apparently, the only person who didn’t like that color on me, or maybe just didn’t like that color. My husband loves it on me. Maybe naysayers are subconsciously motivated by envy; who knows?
Think about what it is that naysayers are trying to prevent you from doing. Going back to school? Probably envy. Traveling? Probably envy. Powerlifting, entering a competition, starting a business, remodeling a house? Stop and ask if there are other people successfully doing the thing you want to do. Then go and talk to one of them, rather than your naysayer, who is probably a blood relation or peer with no relevant experience. Naysaying is probably a sign that what you are planning to do is more interesting than anything your naysayer ever did. If that’s true, you should internally thank them for pointing it out, and then go and do it!
As long as it isn’t hurting anybody, go ahead and do whatever you want. There’s no reason not to, and it probably contributes to the economy.
How will I know if he really loves me, queries Whitney Houston. I’m asking you, because you know about these things.
This conversation happens all the time, at least to me, and I’m often surprised by the ages of the women who begin it. Shouldn’t you be asking how you know if you really love HIM?
If you have to ask if it’s the right person, it isn’t.
If you’re in the habit of asking other people for advice about your emotions and your personal life, question that. Why would anyone else have better information on what’s right for you than you do?
Whether it is the right person or whether it isn’t, there’s no way the person you’re asking will have the answer. That’s because you’ll be the person in the relationship, not anyone else. Not your mom, not your best friend, not your therapist or your manicurist. It’ll be you.
When you link yourself to someone, you’re getting the whole package, good and bad. You marry his credit report, his kids (whether he knows he has any or not), his medical history, his criminal background, his extended family, his pets, his living situation, his vehicle, his exes, everything. Nobody but you is going to have to deal with all of that.
Of course, if you’re right about the potential of this merry, fine fellow, you can gloat about it for many years to come. Your guy is the most reliable, the funniest, just the most wonderful stand-up man. (Although if he really is so great, I wouldn’t advertise it, lest someone else decide to start playing reindeer games with him). Most people are basically trustworthy, after all. It’s your job, in the early days, to weed out the pretenders, the liars, and the cheaters.
When you bring someone into your life, you’re exposing everyone else you care about to this person. Whether it’s an investor, a tenant, a babysitter, or even a dog walker, if you’re introducing him or her to your friends and family, you should know if they’re okay. Most people are, and a few are not. Your job is to vet them before you vouch for them.
If you introduce A Boyfriend or A Girlfriend, everyone is going to assume that you did your due diligence. They’re going to assume that you trust and approve of this person. They’re going to accept your judgment. What they won’t do is to tell you if they have mixed feelings. You can’t really rely on your friends or acquaintances to say, “Hey, this guy seems shady to me.” They won’t tell you that until after the breakup, if then.
A few stories from Reality Romance:
The girlfriend who stole wallets at a baby shower
The husband who turned out to have an alias and a prison record under his real name
The boyfriend who was a registered sex offender and had a probation officer
The boyfriend who served five years in the penitentiary for armed robbery
These are all people I have personally met. They all looked and acted perfectly ordinary, or maybe a little cuter than most.
Most people fall in love backward. They develop strong feelings for someone, which are then gradually eroded by further information. What a mess this is! It’s so much harder to move forward when you’re chemically and physically entangled with someone who is not suitable for you. Everything becomes so much simpler when you start with the assumption that everyone has secrets and dirty habits, everyone has baggage, and only allow yourself to get attached after you find out what’s in that baggage.
When I met my current husband in 2005, he was fresh out of a contentious divorce. It had only been final a little over a year. Custody arrangements hadn’t been settled in their final form yet. I had been divorced for several years at that point, and I knew the emotional arc of divorce drama. I knew how to be a good friend to someone going through that bitter process. We talked money, we talked parenting, we talked breakups, we talked boundaries. By the time we started thinking about romance in any form, we already knew 90% of each other’s dirt. We went in with our eyes open.
It takes three years to “get the crazy out.” That’s what my husband and I say. Everyone has some kind of “crazy” and that’s normal. You just pick the kind of crazy you can handle. Anyone who seems too perfect, too good to be true, has not yet released the crazy. It will come. Never fear. That crazy IS in there and it WILL come out. Just like everyone knows that new babies cry and new puppies chew your shoes, a new romance comes with a history and a little baggage.
Don’t fall in love with an unknown quantity. Who is this person? What is he like? What does he do? More importantly, what does he do in a crisis? What is his worst habit? What’s he like when he’s angry or in a bad mood? Are you sure you’re seeing the real him? Are you sure he’s seeing the real you, for that matter?
If this is the right person, it will still be the right person five years from now. No rush. If you’re going to be waking up with him every morning, you’re the one living with that choice. Can you trust him with access to your bank accounts? (Don’t do it). Can you even trust him not to finish off the last of the ice cream? (Probably not). Would you adopt a dog with this person? Would he pick you up from the airport or take care of you after surgery? Does he snore? The right person will still have some serious flaws, because we’re all only human, but... do you know what those flaws are?
Marriage to the right person is the best thing ever. Marriage to the wrong person is a nightmare. It’s one of the most important decisions you can ever make, and it can ruin your life like almost nothing else. Falling in love, in that context, should be a solemn and somewhat intimidating, imposing event. What if we saw it as something like sailing across the Atlantic, or landing on the moon? Awe-inspiring, dangerous, life-changing, pretty darn cool, but not for everyone and not something to do on a whim. Don’t trust your feelings until after your rational mind has had a say.
Money is the single most common factor in divorce, or rather, fighting about money is. This is tragic, partly because of the heartbreak and the lives destroyed, but also because marriage is such a truly golden opportunity for teamwork and wealth accumulation. Figure out how to work together, and you can quickly reach a point at which you never need to argue about money again. Then all you have to do is learn to negotiate the housework, and the rest is a cakewalk.
There are only a few things more expensive than a contentious divorce. I’m thinking: gambling addiction, multi-level marketing, timeshares, and maybe smoking. My husband and I were both the “saver” in a marriage with a secret spender. That was how we first became friends, comparing notes about how badly we got burned. When we realized that our financial philosophies were very similar, it strengthened our friendship and mutual respect. By the time we eventually started thinking romance, we were already aligned, already giving each other valuable advice and emotional support. This was only compounded by our prior experience. We used our terrible divorces to teach us what to avoid.
Money is only part of the conversation. Really the money is just a symbol, an outward representation of the real discussion. What are we going to do with our lives? How are we going to contribute in this world? How are we going to turn energy into money into energy? As Jim Rohn says, don’t become a millionaire for the million dollars, do it because of the kind of person it will make you into. A resourceful person, a planner, an initiator. Learning the money game is no less legitimate than learning how to excel in art or athletics or academe. Games have rules, that’s all.
How do we get out of the game, around the game, above the game? What’s the strategy?
This is why it’s so valuable to have a partner. You want someone you can talk to, someone you can trust to keep your secrets and advocate for your interests, someone who knows you in some ways better than you know yourself. You want someone with a different skill set, someone who sees what you can’t. Ideally your chosen person is a good sounding board, someone who is afflicted with mood pollution or flagging enthusiasm at a different rhythm than yours.
For instance, my husband sometimes gets frustrated and glum when he can’t solve a complex technical problem. I always laugh because I know the answer will come to him within 36 hours. It always does! As a working artist, I see his wrestling match with the muse in a different context than the STEM people in his office. What’s obvious to me is never the same stuff that’s obvious to him.
I’m a divergent thinker, he’s convergent. I make my investment decisions based on business news, CEO biographies, and trend analysis; he reads P&L statements and looks at the charts and numbers. I’m ultra-frugal; he’d rather just earn more.
Part of why we make a good team is that we respect each other’s input. I play defense, he plays offense. Really, though, our secret is that we strategize and help boost each other’s earning power.
Early in our friendship, I felt paralyzed by the magnitude of applying for a job I really wanted. My future husband stood over me and wouldn’t let me get out of my chair until I’d finished the exhausting three-hour application. He brought me Chinese food. I got the job. Then he did it again the next two times, knowing my tendency to procrastinate until the deadlines had passed. Three buckets of takeout translated, over five years, to a 70% pay increase. My skills, my resume, and my work ethic wouldn’t have meant much without his cheerleading.
I’ve played a similar role in his career path. It helped that we met in the workplace and that I learned about his professional skills from a neutral outsider’s perspective. One of our first collaborations was when I taught him how to set electronic boundaries to keep his ex from distracting him constantly via phone and email. It worked almost instantaneously, of course. It also demonstrated that I understand how mental bandwidth works. I’ll do anything to protect and defend my husband’s ability to focus on his work. To me, that’s the bare minimum. Don’t be an obstacle to your mate’s earning power.
Don’t seek to spend it all, either!
His philosophy is that it’s our money, that what he earns is for both of us. My philosophy is that what’s his is his, and if I want more, I should go out and shake the tree and earn it. I started working for money when I was ten years old. It’s a huge part of my personal pride. It’s also part of why I still have my own personal bank accounts and why I manage my own portfolio. I could never have risked putting on another wedding ring if I’d felt financially dependent on anyone but myself.
What we’ve seen other couples do is really sad and transparently obvious. Here are the rules for ruining a perfectly good love match:
Classic example: He bought a big-screen TV for the Super Bowl party so she bought a high-end sewing machine. There, I showed you! Revenge shopping for the win. The divorce lawyer’s win...
True partners think of each other’s well-being. This is partly out of genuine high regard and affection, like the other day, when I got to see my honey do improv comedy for the first time. I always knew he’d be great at it! I knew it! He makes me proud and I just dote on him. The other reason we think of each other’s well-being is that we benefit from it personally. I mean, duh. When he looks good, I look good, and vice versa. I’ve been there to see him help a stroke victim, break up a fight between two drunks in a restaurant, and help a lost child at the fair, among countless other brave deeds. Knowing the other is cheering from the sidelines can be a very powerful motivating force. A love that spreads outward, a partnership that can’t help but affect everyone around us.
The thing about money is that it’s nothing. It’s just one form of energy among many. It’s a scoring system. It only has the power that we choose to give it. There are lots of ways to live outside of the money system, if you have the taste for that kind of thing. It’s easier and more straightforward to just go ahead and do it the normal way. Money is a way to buy ourselves a certain specific type of old age. It’s a way for us to give gifts and spend time with loved ones who live far away. It’s the most efficient way to do charity. It’s a tool that buys us freedom from various types of distraction. Most of the time, we have the luxury of never thinking about it at all. That’s partly because we share the load and partly because we’ve created a world together. What we do with money we also do with adventure, with exploration and learning and testing our skills and physical abilities. We’re partners in the climb, whatever the nature of that climb might be.
Everything abhors a vacuum: Nature. Cats, obviously. Any system or group that lacks structure or leadership. Power struggles can cause a lot of friction in relationships, and conversely, lack of power struggles can do it too. That’s what happens when nobody in a household is willing to step up and make decisions. A household leadership vacuum can lead to a long list of predictable problems.
In a household with no leadership, everyone is unhappy for different reasons. Typically, there are debt, mess, and health problems. Everyone eats meals and goes to bed at different times from everyone else. The pets are acting crazy. No vacations are to be had. Paradoxically, everyone does what they want in the small ways, yet never gets to do what they want on the large scale. No leadership means no major projects, no matter how cool they would have been.
Leadership doesn’t have to be combative, strict, cruel, or obnoxious. The image that comes to mind is of a large capybara leading other capybaras into a hot spring. A mother duck leading a string of a dozen fluffy yellow ducklings to a pond. A mama dog teaching a puppy to climb stairs. Nature is full of adorable examples of cute animals living in harmony, all because they have a culture that they teach by example.
Argue just what exactly I mean by “culture” in that statement, and then agree with me that building a nest or hive takes a great deal more coordination and communication than many humans exhibit in their homes. If you can’t agree with that, come with me on a home visit and take a good look at the phenomenon that I call ‘laundry carpet.’
Housework is one of the top reasons that couples fight and get divorced. Having tried to draw up chore calendars and chore wheels, I can say with certainty that it is also one of the main reasons why roommates move out and stop being friends with one another. Housework is only one symptom among many of what triggers communication breakdowns and destroys relationships.
Money: Who’s earning what, who’s spending, how much, and what are they buying?
Schedule: Who’s going to bed when, who’s abusing the snooze alarm, who’s waking someone else up
Food: Who’s planning it, who’s shopping for it, who’s cooking it, who’s eating it all, who’s convincing the kids to eat it, and, most importantly, who’s cleaning up after it
Sharing: Who gets to hold the remote? Who gets to drive the “good” car or eat the “good” leftovers or finish the last of the ice cream?
Procrastinating: (Everybody does it but) Who promised what and then failed to follow through?
Parenting: Who has to play “bad cop,” who’s being inconsistent, who’s susceptible to childish wiles, who’s abdicating responsibilities
Lifestyle: What do we want out of life? How do we want to spend our time? How do we want our home to look and feel? What’s the right kind of vacation? How much is enough for retirement?
Picture any argument you’ve ever heard between people who share a home or an office. The root cause is going to be an unresolved problem that could have been prevented if someone had set policy in advance. It could be solved with negotiation, which is a form of leadership, in that it requires someone to take the initiative and make an offer.
Negotiating and setting policies that work for everyone are gentle ways to assert leadership.
My dad had a policy that if he assigned chores, he just wanted them all to get done. He didn’t care if my brothers and I traded amongst ourselves; he didn’t even want to be in the loop. Work it out among yourselves and get it done. That policy taught us to negotiate, something that siblings are often pretty good at. Another similar policy was that the kid who sliced the cake got to choose last. Those were the most precise cake slices you’ve ever seen; you could probably weigh them and they’d come out balanced to the last nanoparticle. A good policy makes sense to everyone. If it’s an improvement over chaos, it’ll be adopted and embraced.
Show me a burned-out, exhausted, defensive parent and I’ll show you a parent who has not yet learned to negotiate and set policies.
Show me a couple who can’t talk about money, housework, sex, or the balance of power in their relationship, and I’ll show you a couple of referrals for divorce lawyers.
Living with other humans in a confined physical space is hard. It’s complicated. In a culture where nobody believes in sleep, everyone is tired. That means nobody wants to do anything more than they’re already doing, whether that’s cooking, putting away laundry, vacuuming goldfish crumbs out of the car, or opening a difficult conversation about debt. Ironically, it’s the skill of strategic discussion that has the power to defuse the tension around any topic.
The old school, traditional method was the authoritarian rule of the iron rod. There is one powerful figure in the home. That person lays down the law and backs it up with corporal punishment and verbal abuse. Everyone else, from wives to courtesans to children to serfs to livestock, cowers in fear and struggles to be obedient. This ancient structure persists to the present day. A lot of people avoid conflict for this very reason, the trauma of authoritarian family structure. It’s hard for us to imagine any other way of doing things.
The new way is cooperation, brainstorming, and creativity. Negotiation starts with deep listening, empathy, and mutual respect. How are things for you? What’s working? What’s not working? What is your outrageous dream? What’s your vision of the good life, and how can we facilitate that for you?
I facilitated a discussion like this with a blended family. Each member felt exhausted and unfairly burdened by chores and helping with the new baby. It turned out that they each had fourteen responsibilities. Looking at the list, everyone (parents and teenage kid) agreed that it was actually a remarkably fair division of labor. Why, then, were they so frustrated? They simply weren’t giving each other appreciation, they weren’t celebrating or having enough fun, and none of them had the “prize” they wanted most. For Mom it was the ability to occasionally soak in a hot bubble bath. Legit. Dad wanted family dinners at the table, at least sometimes. Fair enough. Teenager wanted permission to ride the city bus and go to the movies. At his age, why not?
An easy way to initiate a discussion about a leadership vacuum is to get your partner (child, roommate, talking pony) to share about something they find exciting or fascinating. A wish, a dream, a hobby. What do they like, what do they want more of? Offer ways that you could help make that happen, like trading responsibilities or rearranging furniture to create a new space. A less verbal way to do this would be to silently surprise everyone with a positive change, like clearing off the dining table or cooking a special meal. Then, make your pitch and ask specifically for what you want.
What works is to add as much positivity, fun, harmony, and good cheer as possible. The more opportunities there are to relax, hang out, laugh, tell interesting stories, read quietly together, share meals, invite friends over, snuggle with pets, watch the clouds, stargaze, and otherwise enjoy each other’s presence, the easier it is to do the boring stuff. The tension drains away, and the hard conversations can become... just regular conversations.
Cynics may be onto something. Romantic love, I suspect, is different now than it used to be, and I mean that in a chemical way. Not that romantic love is such a big deal - even in antiquity, people distinguished between the love we feel for our friends, our children and parents, our sense of home, and this other thing that seems to get all the fuss. Part of that is cultural; how quickly we forget that fictional representations of romantic love helped to destroy the age-old practice of arranged marriage in which women were legally regarded as property. Even the most skeptical and snarky amongst us could give a little nod to that. Love as a choice, love as an option, love even as an imaginary figment: surely that’s better than the alternatives?
What if it is chemical? So what about that? Aren’t ideas only electrical impulses? Isn’t speech just muscular contractions and sonic vibrations? Aren’t all emotions just chemicals, when it comes right down to it? Find consciousness, locate it in the body. Find heroism, find music. Somewhere in that jumble, love is probably in there, too.
This is what I think is different about love. I think that culturally we’ve been trained to seek out dopamine, in the same way that we would if we were gambling or shopping or eating chocolate. Swirly eyes. This thing about dating apps, where you swipe left or right depending on whether you think someone is cute, it’s really just catalogue shopping. It’s inconceivable that anyone could detect a spark or even a mental connection in the few seconds it takes to glance at a photo. How much of modern romance consists of objectifying someone you almost never see face-to-face, and then talking about it with other people who aren’t involved?
He loves me, he loves me not, he loves me, he loves me not.
It all looks different from the perspective of a middle-aged married person. When you look up one day and realize that you’re working on your second decade with someone, yet it still feels like you just met yesterday. Wait, what year is this? We’ve been together how long? Wait, didn’t our hair used to be dark?
Old love is about oxytocin. I’m convinced. I also think that old-fashioned romance had a better grasp of this.
Not to say that I’d trade today for yesterday. Any yesterday at all. There were too many weird rules in the past about who wasn’t allowed to love whom. Too much public shaming, too many secrets. Shut the door on all of that, and good riddance. Here’s to today and tomorrow, to a world with more love in it, more love of every kind.
We can still appreciate a few relics here and there, in context. Love songs, for example. So many love songs are a bit warped, with messages like “I can’t live without you.” Whatever emotion brought that on, I don’t want it. What I have in mind are the slow dance songs, like “Put Your Head on My Shoulder.” I think it’s this type of music, combined with the slow dancing, that was designed to induce oxytocin, the cuddle hormone.
This is objectively testable.
You can feel it, though. With focus, it’s possible to recognize the physical and emotional feelings that come with the different chemicals. Cortisol for stress, adrenalin for excitement, dopamine for cupcakes, oxytocin for snuggling. That last one is probably what drives our cultural production of cute animal memes. In the recent past, I think ordinary people got more of it from dopey stuff like holding hands, slow dancing, and leaning against each other.
This stuff works across species, by the way. I have a dog and a parrot, and the bird is obsessed with trying to snuggle with the dog. He’ll only let her do it if he’s under a blanket, when she’s allowed to stand on him and warm her scaly toes. One day, he fell asleep with about three inches between his back and the sofa cushions. She ventured into that temporary gap, chose a spot... and POOFED until her feathers were touching his fur. Possibly one of the best days of her fluffy life.
There was probably more social touching in the past. People shared physical labor and folk dancing. Communities were smaller, while households were bigger. Almost nobody slept alone; it was simply too cold. There were a lot of strange rules about ‘courting’ - the reason that young people spent so much time holding hands and, eventually, slow dancing - but casual, platonic physical contact was probably more common between everyone else.
Times have changed. I’m listening to my neighbors right now, walking a few feet over my head. Not only do I not know their names, I don’t even know what they look like yet. Proximity without connection. How much of that we have now. How often we look around and see strangers lined up, looking at their phones, barely noticing that there are other humans next to them in line or at a table a few inches away. How much more time we spend stroking glass than holding another human hand.
A lot of people hate Valentine’s Day because they associate it with unrealistic expectations of romantic love, plus crass commercialism. I don’t like those things, either. What if we just replaced them? Not to tear down 1/366 of a year with its associated candy, and replace it with yet another dull, ordinary day, but to rewrite it entirely; I think we can do that. Let’s just make it about every kind of love. Including the snuggly kind, wherever we might find it.
Brene’ Brown makes a wish in this book: “I wish there was a secret handshake for the wild heart club.” Well, I wish there was a secret handshake for people who have read her work or listened to her speak! Maybe a button or something. Brene’ Brown is a one-woman revolution. We need her work, and after we drink it in, we need to DO her work. Braving the Wilderness is perhaps her most important message yet. Essentially, it’s about how we rebuild our culture and sense of unity in the face of worsening polarization. How can we create more of a feeling of belonging despite our conflicting values?
Words that come up in Brown’s research: Blame. Rage. Cynicism. Distrust. Fear. Loneliness. Contempt.
As much as we recognize these universal emotions, it is almost absurdly challenging for us to acknowledge that people we perceive as our rivals, our competitors, our opponents, or our enemies feel precisely the same way.
Vulnerability and shame are themes throughout Brown’s work, and we recognize how these interior feelings are magnified from the social to the cultural level. So this is what happens when we deny our darker emotions!
One of the qualities that makes Brown such a superstar is that she transcends regional, cultural, and political differences. Everyone feels like she belongs... to US! She’s able to straddle so many divides in such a totally unique way. This book will push a few buttons, but it does it magnanimously and fairly. Everyone gets a turn.
I am heartily in favor of Brown’s call for a return to civility. It’s not that difficult to practice; often all it involves is not joining in or piling on when someone else makes a snarky comment. Another simple, easy, relaxing way to achieve civility is to avoid introducing political topics. I consider it a victory when I have no idea what someone’s political affiliation is, and an additional level of triumph when I participate in an event where politics are irrelevant. For instance, we’re probably evenly divided in my public speaking club, but I genuinely couldn’t guess the alignment of about 90% of my fellow members. It’s better that way. We can and do share stories, laughter, hugs, and high fives, enjoying each other’s company, face to face. Almost every social gathering and event could be this way. All it takes is reminding ourselves that we share most things in common, and the most important of these common traits are mutual affection and respect.
“He likes you way more than you like you.”
“Because true belonging only happens when we present our authentic, imperfect selves to the world, our sense of belonging can never be greater than our level of self-acceptance.”
“Is there a faster, easier way to make friends with a stranger than to talk smack about someone you both know?... I don’t really know you, nor am I invested in our relationship, but I do like that we hate the same people and have contempt for the same ideas.”
“When we’re suffering, many of us are better at causing pain than feeling it.”
“Stop walking through the world looking for confirmation that you don’t belong.”
My husband and I both have a big project this year. We’ve always been that way. He’s an Eagle Scout, and when I met him, he had a big cardboard box full of trophies and ribbons and badges. It would drive him crazy to think I’m bragging about him, but hey, it’s objectively true. I introduced him to my wacky, convoluted New Year’s Eve goal-setting ritual early on. Doing that kind of annual planning together has cross-pollinated both of our project styles. How can we both keep doing bigger and bigger stuff every year without getting in each other’s way?
A couple of years ago, we started a new habit that we called Status Meeting. It was meant to be just for New Year’s Day, but we liked it so much that we decided to do it every weekend. Then it started feeling routine and maybe unnecessary. We gradually quit doing it in the second year. We realized that we were starting to talk about household business every night again, rather than saving it for that one weekend morning. Status Meeting was reborn!
The point of Status Meeting is to treat our household business AS business, to handle all the boring details of our lives with professional courtesy. Since we originally met in the workplace, it comes naturally to us. We find it amusing to use workplace jargon and to role-play. “As CFO, I recommend that...” “Status me your status.” We use this time to segregate what could be heavy or dark topics. Are we on target for our savings goals? Is that card getting paid off this month? Should we relocate again? Are they talking layoffs at work? The dog doesn’t seem to be feeling very well. Obviously we prefer to use Status Meeting to talk about travel, redecorating the living room, or finding more time to take Spike to the bark park. Sometimes, it’s big.
We had Status Meeting on New Year’s Day again, as per tradition. On the table:
His goals to work on a robotics project, start a blog, and write a book
My goals to start martial arts training and become a Distinguished Toastmaster
There were other goals on the table, but we’ll keep it simple.
Our starting assumption is that anything new will impact our schedule, our mental bandwidth, the physical distribution of space in our tiny apartment, whether our pets are in their crates, and probably our finances. We’re not so much “asking” each other or getting “permission” as we are keeping each other informed and opening the door to ideas and feedback.
He says he wants to do a book. Awesome! I immediately offer to help with the outline, basic copy editing, and a non-technical layperson to read. I’ll do it, or I’ll connect him with someone if he’d rather I not be involved. My role is to be supportive but unattached. This is HIS project. I think it’s cool but I cannot claim ownership.
It turns out that the best way I can help is to brainstorm how he can divide his mental effort between the robotics, which he does at the level of professional mastery, and the writing, which is fairly new to him. I point out that he really needs three separate things. 1. Physical workspace setup, because he’ll be using the same computer and desk space for two mutually exclusive tasks. He has to move the keyboard while he solders and vice versa. 2. An outline. It probably won’t take very long, and it will give him a lot more clarity about what he wants from the project. 3. Division of mental labor. He can spend the weekends working on the robotics part of the project, taking photos and video, and doing anything physical. He can do the writing on weeknights, which are my nights to cook dinner, thus breaking up the mental concentration into natural 1-3 hour blocks.
Helping him talk through how he’s going to do something really cool is fascinating and fun for me. It helps me to feel like I’m participating.
A different person might be frustrated that her mate plans to spend such a huge chunk of his evenings and weekends focusing on schematics and chip boards. I’m a Quality Time person. I’d much rather spend one hour a night having an intriguing discussion with a happy man than endless dull evenings watching TV next to a bored man. Besides, while he’s busy, I have carte blanche to do as I will. How’s a girl supposed to get any reading done when this husband character keeps wanting to talk?
Now we talk about my martial arts thing. I already know that I married a man who is drawn to the badass superhero type. We were both fat when we met (we’ve lost a hundred pounds between us), and I always felt that he found me attractive. It wasn’t until I found my inner athlete that I discovered this other side to him. He was fine with the chronically fatigued, obese me. He was charmed by marathon-training me. He appears to be absolutely smitten with the new kickboxing version of me.
The big question was whether he wanted to train with me. Should I take morning classes alone and keep my evenings free? Or should I go in the evenings and meet him there? This decision also impacted my choice of gym, since there were two radically different options at the exact same price.
Due to the robotics book project, the decision was fairly clear. He’s a little “jelly” but training with me this year means no book this year. Maybe after he finishes it, he can join and we can take classes together. He has a fair amount of martial arts experience and would inevitably work through the beginner levels much faster than I will.
My public speaking goals most likely won’t have much impact on his schedule. I’ll just keep attending the same meetings I have been for the past two years. It’s really more about whether he wants to take his own membership to the same level or not. I check in with curiosity, not with pressure.
My new fitness class schedule has ripple effects on us. I hold up my end of our household bargain, doing my chores, running my errands, and cooking on my nights. I’m ravenous and exhausted and bruised up, though, and grumbling about my delayed onset muscle soreness. This is amusing to both of us, largely because, as I said, I uphold my end of our bargain. If I used my choice to take boxing classes as an excuse to manipulate him into doing more housework, that would be an issue for Status Meeting.
I can dimly imagine a few scenarios where we fight about all of this. Where I demand that he pay my gym fees for me, even though it would mean giving up another financial goal. Where I am “too tired” to go to 9 AM class, and instead we fight because I’m never home at night and there’s no food on the table. Where we don’t have a system for running our ship smoothly, and he can’t concentrate on his book, while I cry because he’s “ignoring” me. Where we’re both “so busy” that suddenly our shoebox apartment fills up with dirty dishes and piles of laundry. Where we jump on every whim and impulse, only to look up years later and realize we are tens of thousands of dollars in debt. Where we both do what we want, living parallel lives of disinterested freedom, little more than over-scheduled roomies.
Negotiating makes everything easier for everyone. We start with policies, basic agreements about how we want to communicate and spend our time. What baseline emotional reality do we want to live? We’re friends. That’s why we got married. We want to act like allies and partners, people who find each other fun and interesting. It’s our job to do fun stuff together, and also to do fun stuff separately. This is how we eventually turn into cool old people. How do we make the best memories and stories today?
Any really big, audacious goal, any quest or momentous adventure, impacts other people. That’s partly the point. For those of us who don’t live alone, those of us who have subtle strings tying us to others, it’s imperative to get buy-in. Otherwise, not only are these gigundous goals not going to happen, but they don’t deserve to.
Put simply, we have obligations, and they’re real. Abandoning our duties and responsibilities without negotiation is called abdication, and abdicating means you suck. Sometimes, yeah, you find yourself doing it, out of confusion or burning passion or agony. It does incur mighty debts. Worse, it causes drama, instantaneous drama, drama that can and will drag interminably into the long term. If you can’t bear your load, negotiate it, but don’t drop it.
If you spill, wipe it up.
That being said, almost every goal is so modest that it can easily be fit around even the largest family or the craziest love life.
What is this thing called buy-in?
Buy-in means that other people understand your project and they’re okay with it. They may not be willing to pay for it, or drive you around, or make space for huge amounts of gear and supplies. Those negotiations are separate. In general, when you have buy-in it means that nobody is going to get in your way. That’s important.
When you’re trying to reach escape velocity on something, when you’re trying to burst through a boundary, even the smallest bit of friction can hold you back. All it takes is one person who takes your goal personally in a bad way, and suddenly you’ve made your project ten times more complicated.
What are some popular ways to create opposition to your goals?
Disrupt other people’s sleep. If the only way you can think of to make your goal happen is to cause bright lights and loud noises while another person is trying to sleep, go back to the drawing board. If you wouldn’t want someone to do it to you, don’t do it.
Bogart common areas. If you live with other people, they are fully as entitled to the use of common areas as you are. This includes the bathroom, kitchen, dining table, driveway, area around the front door, countertops - basically every space in your home except for your personal, private spaces. If you don’t have a big enough private space to do your project, negotiate. First make sure the problem isn’t that you just have far more stuff than everyone else in the house.
Spend more than your fair share of household resources. If you’re the bigger earner, do as you will. If you rely on your partner to fund the majority of your lifestyle, and you want more money to pay for something, it will go better if you start a side hustle and figure out a way to earn it. You’re fully entitled to your own earnings, with no upper limits. If you want a bigger share of someone else’s paycheck, negotiate. Figure out a way to sweeten that deal. (Example: wanting financial support to earn a certification toward a new career).
Abdicate on your household responsibilities. If you start a new project that involves you dumping dirty dishes in the sink and wandering off, or leaving massive piles of dirty laundry to fester unattended, or strewing things hither and yon, good luck with that. It’s not fair to other people who live with you to also have to live with your mess. Likewise, if you have children together, you need to be present in their lives. Find a way to involve your kids in your project.
If you live alone, obviously you can do what you want day and night. Pause for a moment and imagine all the hefty responsibilities that you don’t have! When I went back to school, I would often pause and think of my classmates who were single parents. It made the all-nighters feel much easier.
Okay, having talked about ways to sabotage your own project or cause an uptick in the local voodoo doll industry, what are ways to do it right? How do we get buy-in?
First, rehearse what you’re going to say. Let your talking points be crystal clear in your mind. What do you want and what are you prepared to do about it? You can probably find a neutral third party who will practice with you. Maybe a coworker or a random stranger from the internet will find it amusing to run a few scenarios.
Second, make sure the discussion feels fun and light and easy. Don’t do the “I want to talk” thing; it scares people. Say, “Hey, I had an idea I wanted to run by you” or “Can I ask you about a project I’m thinking about?” Your face, voice, emojis, and words should all drive curiosity and interest, while consciously avoiding defensiveness or nervousness in your partner.
Third, start with appreciation and compliments. “Thanks for being there for me. You’re so easy to talk to. It really helps that I know I can go to you when I’m trying to figure something out.” Make sure to mention ways that your partner has been supportive, inspirational, etc.
Fourth, say what you want. Make it clear and simple. What do you want, and what do you want from this person? “I want to start running, and I could really use your help mapping my routes.”
What DO you want?
Please don’t make fun of me
Please keep your snacks at work and don’t tease me with food
Will you get the dog in his harness while I put on my running gear?
Will you cook on school nights if I cook on the weekend?
Will you play board games with the kids while I write for three hours a week?
Fifth, pitch something that will matter to this person. What are you prepared to do to facilitate a goal of theirs? Sometimes it can help to lead with this idea. What if we both clear out the garage, and you can use the bench for your guitar workshop if I can have the back corner for inventory? If you get the kids ready for school while I do yoga, I’ll take over dinner so you can take that night class. Chances are that you know perfectly well exactly what your partner would like from you. It’s very rare for two people’s goals to be truly mutually exclusive. That’s zero-sum thinking and it’s almost always factually incorrect.
The last piece is to be prepared for a backup plan. Maybe a friend or relative or someone you can hire to fill in. The person in your life is entitled to say No to your requests. Something that you want to do does not create an obligation in anyone else. Granted, if you’re with someone who refuses to accommodate you, who doesn’t like the fuller version of you, who wishes you’d quit doing what you most want to do, that tells you some important things about that relationship. Would it be easier or better or more interesting to be alone than to be with this person?
That’s an extremely large-scale decision. If it’s the bad roommate who’s behind on rent, maybe that’s a 1 out of 5 in difficulty. If that bad roommate happens to be a blood relation, maybe that’s a 2 if it’s your in-law and a 3 if it’s your own fam. If your secret and true goal is not the pseudo-goal of your project but just some escape and distance from a dying relationship, well, it’s hard, but inevitable. Isn’t it.
Negotiating is really just another name for brainstorming. What are a bunch of different ways that everyone here can get something better than what we have right now? It’s better if everyone feels appreciated and respected. It’s better if everyone has clearly defined privacy and personal space. It’s better if everyone feels like a member of the same team, working toward common goals. It’s best when everyone involved feels like the relationship is meaningful, honest, and fulfilling. That can only be true when each person is moving toward growth and deeper engagement with all of life.
The rent? It’s too damn high, as I’m sure we can all agree. When I first moved out on my own, my rent equaled precisely 100% of my income. Two months later, I had it down to 80%, and eventually 50%, which is the case for 11 million Americans today. I have a deep distrust of property management companies. This is true even though I have a perfect 25-year track record of always getting my cleaning deposit back. I’m a great tenant with great credit. Even so, I only learned recently that you can negotiate your rent.
I’m not just saying that you can negotiate your rent with a private landlord, such as when you rent a room in a house.
I’m saying that you can even negotiate your rent with a big property management company.
What? How can this be?
The first principle of negotiations is that it’s possible for all parties involved to get the thing they want the most. The act of negotiation itself, when done with skill, can even bring all interested parties closer together. They’ve had a transaction of mutual benefit and demonstrated that it’s a smart idea to talk to one another. A good negotiation sets the stage for further good negotiations.
In the case of rent, the landlord or property manager has the goal of maximizing revenue from the property. This includes keeping reliable tenants in the unit as long as possible, minimizing maintenance and turnover costs. Reliable tenants also displace the unknown quantity of new, unproven tenants. Every month that a reliable tenant occupies the property is a month of income, rather than a month sitting empty with no rent coming in. An empty property is also vulnerable to squatters and vandals.
A tenant obviously has the goal of minimizing rent and utility costs, while living in the nicest neighborhood with the shortest work commute. My position is that many people tolerate conditions or deals that they should not. Skilled negotiation can help the owner or manager to understand that it is in everyone’s best interest to maintain and improve properties and to encourage civil behavior among residents.
By that I mean, neighbors who don’t clean up after their dogs, neighbors who fight on their balcony at 1 AM on a work night, neighbors whose car alarm keeps going off at 7 AM, neighbors who continually blare loud music out their open window, and this list is so far only covering one building in our complex.
It’s like this. If you want me to pay higher rent, I’d better be getting more value from it.
This is what actually happened.
We got an email saying that our lease was coming up in March, and that the rent would be going up $200 a month. Like fun it is! We had the option of renewing for six months, ten months, or month-to-month. Not even a year?
Was this rent increase to be coupled with a property improvement? Say, the removal of the fugly popcorn ceiling? Upgrading the oatmeal shag carpet to, perhaps, bamboo flooring? Putting in an air filter or air conditioning? Free wi-fi? Maybe just refreshing the battered, squealing equipment in the gym?
Haha, no. None of that.
WE are going to charge you MORE RENT, because we can. YOU are getting nothing except for the opportunity to PAY MORE RENT.
The thing is, this is not a fixed, final position.
Even they don’t think it is!
They just increase the rent, again, because they can, and also because most people never question it.
Most people are stuck. They’re either trapped by a mortgage, constrained by lack of savings, or emotionally attached to the neighborhood or their kids’ school or something. People will tolerate absurd commutes, homes that are not energy efficient, obnoxious neighbors, lack of amenities, and all sorts of persistent problems. Why is that?
Why do people hate moving so much? Because they have so much stuff!
My husband and I live in a 680-square-foot apartment. Everything we own fit in 65 boxes in one 20-foot moving van last time, and we’ve gotten rid of quite a bit of stuff since then. Our starting position in these negotiations was that we can simply find a cheaper place with a shorter commute. Pack in three days, move in one day, be completely unpacked in a week.
We’ve got the credit, we’ve got the savings, we’ve got the references. We are totally unafraid of relocating; we’ve already moved six times in our eight years as a married couple.
There’s a funny part to this story. When we got the letter claiming that our rent was going up (no, not if we move away it isn’t), my husband did some research. There were two one-bedroom units in our complex coming up for $500 LESS than what we were CURRENTLY paying! What’s more, the photo in the advertisements was of the unit that we actually occupy right now. Not just a similar unit, a unit with the same floor plan, but the same one!
Just to be cute, we can say at the beginning of the negotiation that we want to pay that rent for the unit we’re in. How about if you go right on ahead and LOWER our rent? We’ll pay the rent you’re advertising and you won’t have to bother vetting a new tenant. How about that?
The property manager claims not to be the decider. She does come back and offer us an increase of only $100, rather than the $200 we were initially shown.
See? It works! You can negotiate your rent!
Or at least, my husband can. I have to give him all the credit for this. I tell him I’ll pack the kitchen. Come on. It might not be saving us $5000 this year, but it will take a lot longer than the negotiating conversation did...
It doesn’t stop there, though. We learned that our building has higher rent than other buildings in the same complex because we supposedly have “a view.” *cough* We have a “peek view.” This means that because we can go to the very edge of our balcony, lean way over, and see a postage-stamp sized glimpse of the ocean, we have the luxury of paying an extra six thousand dollars a year in rent.
Well, forget that.
What we actually do is to apply for, and get, a “junior one bedroom” unit. (Popularly known as a “studio.”) It’s over $400 a month cheaper than what we’ve been paying. The layout and built-in shelving makes it feel larger, even though we’re dropping 70 square feet. The best part is that the new unit is right next to the pool, hot tub, and gym, as well as the nearest park, and it’s even slightly closer to the library, grocery store, bus stop, and post office. For our purposes, we’re getting a better apartment at a better price.
So there you have it. We decided to stay in our overpriced apartment complex because we like the location and because the property managers were willing to entertain our negotiations. If they had not, we would have simply found another place a couple of miles up the road and enjoyed both lower rent and a shorter commute. As of February, we’ll be saving over $400 a month rather than paying an extra $200 (or $100, the first result of negotiations).
We counted it up. The difference between what we will pay vs. the default we would have been charged is a full $8160 a year. This is part of why we 1. Don’t carry consumer debt and 2. Get to go on all these rad vacations. Because we put our financial independence first and because our physical possessions are expendable.
We have a month before our move-in date. We’re not going to bother even thinking about packing for three weeks, not because we’re disorganized or procrastinating, but because we already know how long it takes us to pack. We’ll spend the time hanging out in the hot tub and gloating because we’re such ace minimalists. We’ll also high-five because we’ve already finished one of our New Year’s Resolutions, which was to lower our rent. High five, babe!
How about you? Are you satisfied with all aspects of your current living situation? How about your finances? It’s always good to pause periodically and analyze your circumstances. This is where strategy begins.
In any group setting, there’s a significant chance that something awkward will happen. Most social or business occasions bring people together based on shared interests. When it’s family, well, we’re together more or less due to random chance. It’s a coincidence. Expectations and manners will be totally different than what would work in the outside world. A lot can be done in advance to mitigate some of these weird rules, preparing ourselves emotionally and mentally as we enter the magical world of family gatherings.
Surprisingly, something that seems to help in family gatherings is to look at them through the lens of a professional setting. How would I react if this were happening in a client meeting? Many of us have a blandly cheerful mask that we wear for customer service, a poker face we’re able to put on even when some total jerk is throwing a tantrum over something completely trivial. For instance, I was at a Starbucks once when a woman started screaming at not just her barista, but all four people behind the counter, and then dragged her little son up with her twice more to do it again. Imagine this happening at a family party... (perhaps not much of an imaginative leap)... The Starbucks crew handled this absurd scene with great tact and aplomb. As a mere customer, I wanted to jump up and say, “LADY! They’re already remaking your drink! Get over it!” Or perhaps offer to pay her $10 to leave, or $20 to never come back. There were 20 people in the room who did not deserve to listen to her having a fit.
Spend enough time out in public in any major city, and the routine behavior you’ll see will usually make your family’s foibles seem tame in comparison.
I’ve worked in a drug rehab, in a parole and probation office, in a homeless shelter, and in a couple of other social services offices. I’ve been shouted at by a methamphetamine addict twice my size who was late for anger management therapy. I’ve also worked in a convenience store, an entirely different order of weird. I probably haven’t heard or seen everything, not quite yet, but I think I’m getting close.
None of that prepared me for the time my ex-sister-in-law’s dog jumped on the table and started eating the turkey off the platter.
The ways that family, extended family, pets, and neighbors will cause social awkwardness are pretty predictable. Just like crime! There are only so many things that people will do or say. We can practice ahead of time and get into that special Jedi mindset, that exalted place where what could have been painful or humiliating can instead be experienced as interesting or funny.
Question One: Will this make a good story later?
First, consider who will be at the event, who might show up, and who definitely won’t be there. You can usually anticipate the sort of topics or rote insults that will come up, because people tend to have patterns that they live out, year after year.
It’s the “Aunt Mabel” show! Looking at a frustrating person as a type of character actor, performing in a comedy set piece, can often help. Their predictability can be part of their charm. Villains are usually the most interesting.
Second, don’t work yourself into a lather over conversations that haven’t yet actually happened. All you really have to do is memorize a couple of snappy come-backs or practice some conversation pivots, and then go back to your regularly scheduled programming.
What sort of stuff is going to push your buttons? What has reliably upset you? People who provoke you in the same ways over and over again are really doing you a favor. They’re giving you a safe place to practice not giving a flying fudge. If they keep saying the same things year after year, you can keep testing out new responses and seeing how they work out. You can also tune this person out, just like you would a Furby, or my parrot the year she learned to imitate the neighbor’s shrieking two-year-old daughter.
Politics! Nobody is entitled to my opinion. I refuse to be drawn out on political topics. My regular dinner guests used to start doing the “DANGER, WILL ROBINSON! WHOOP WHOOP! WARNING” alarm if someone tried to start up a political “debate.” My formal policy is that I only discuss pre-Industrial politics. We can do the Roman Empire, we can do Dark Ages, we can do the Viking Age, but as we start to approach the Elizabethan Era I start redirecting and steering away.
Whether I will have children! Oddly enough, this still comes up occasionally, even though I’m 42 now. My answer has changed over the years, but lately I just say that my stepdaughter is in college and any new babies in my life will be grandchildren.
General criticism! Just smile. As a practitioner of radical honesty, I say, “Thank you for telling me.” Other effective responses are, “You’re right,” and “I agree,” and, “Anything you want to add?” Also feel free to respond with a love bomb, like a hug, or stroking someone’s cheek. If this person sincerely seems out to be nasty and trying to attack people with contempt, just ask, “Oh, are we doing critique now? Would you like to receive yours next or do you want to go last?” Sometimes I just say, “That’s mean!”
Physical appearance! Anyone who is crass enough to make “teasing” comments or jokes about someone else’s appearance is fair game as a known Rude Person. I will come down with great vengeance on anyone who bullies someone else in my presence, and if they come after me, well, they have only themselves to blame.
I have pretty much no filter, and my sense of humor is extremely broad and coarse. That being said, however, I like to make jokes that people can still laugh about months later. The best kind of joke is one that makes the target smile, something that makes him or her look and feel good. For instance, I once met a guy who introduced himself as Lev, and I said, “All you need is Lev!” He blinked, mentally translating, and replied, “Yes! All you need is Lev!” I could imagine him going on to introduce himself that way. If you have to make a joke at someone’s expense, let it be your own.
Traditionally, it was the role of the hostess to direct and redirect conversation. Genteel people were trained to smooth over awkwardness, give others the benefit of the doubt, and steer conversations toward general interest. I think a lot of the friction we have today comes from a lack of conversational leadership. Anyone can step in to fill that role, and it can even be done so subtly that nobody realizes what just happened. We can do this by memorizing some conversational topics and using them to change the subject, or maybe even start a conversation that never has a chance to turn toward the awkward.
One year, I literally brought to a gathering a couple of packets of “Table Topics” cards with neutral topics and questions for a general audience. It wound up being a long, memorable conversation that everyone was reluctant to end. Something about the structure and the questions brought out the nostalgia, the wishes and dreams, the funny anecdotes, the bright moments we don’t always guess are hidden inside our nearest and dearest.
Or our furthest and worst-est.
Stories are what we’re after. Even the most obnoxious, belligerent, incorrigible person still has a story to tell. Often those horrible attitudes come from a deep desire for respect and admiration. People can start to feel irrelevant as they age, or invisible when they’re not yet considered real adults. With skill and affection, we can draw people out, distracting them from the rants and the unpleasantness by asking them to share more about their life. How are things with you? What is a memory you can share? How can we get through the next two hours and emerge expanded, practicing love and forgiveness and elevating one another in some way? What would love say?
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I've been working with chronic disorganization, squalor, and hoarding for over 20 years. I'm also a marathon runner who was diagnosed with fibromyalgia and thyroid disease 17 years ago.