Monday, August 23, 2010

Coloring Outside the Lines

I remember one of the most fun activities we participated in when attending kindergarten was coloring in art class. Often times we were handed images in black outline to which we could add whatever colors we wanted. It was emphasized that coloring outside the lines was to be avoided. This may have been an instruction with long term conflicting messages. One school of thought says that "everything we needed to know, we learned in kindergarten". Another school says that coloring outside the box shows creativity and courage. Whichever school you subscribe to, the basic idea of boundaries and how we respect them is the bottom line.

Much as we have boundaries in our coloring books, so we have them in many real life situations which are somewhat more sophisticated. We find boundaries for ourselves which we don't want others to cross. This is healthy and it helps define for others where respectful interaction begins and ends. From the distance we stand from each other when shaking hands to the types of personal questions we entertain as acceptable, there is a whole spectrum of behaviors which define who we are and what we are comfortable with.

Being civil to one another and understanding what is off limits and what is fertile ground for building relationships is all part of the social process in which we conduct both our business and social lives. Understanding what and where our boundaries are; in fact, becoming aware of them to begin with, helps us understand where others' are as well.

How many times have we thought to ourselves, "that's none of my business", or perhaps, "that's none of your business". These are clear cut examples of when boundaries are being crossed. We consider it rude and insensitive when people step over that invisible line. Know that others feel the same way when we do it to them. There are times when gossiping becomes a central conversation. More times than not, gossip is more than communicating factual information. The
intention of gossip is to empower the messenger by maligning someone else, usually with only half-truths, most often with blatant falsehoods. Becoming swept up in this dynamic is unfortunately very easy to do. It also does tend to make us feel uncomfortable. These are other examples of not respecting one another's boundaries.

A friend and I were discussing this recently and the question came up as to how to react to such a situation. Do you call them on this behavior on the spot and embarrass them into changing the subject? I would suggest that there is a better solution. It reminds me of the times when people say hurtful things unintentionally. As I have mentioned in the past, a cardinal rule of etiquette and a cornerstone of a healthy society is never to embarrass someone in public, intentionally or not. Therefore, my advice is to speak directly to the gossip and simply state that his or her remarks make you feel very uncomfortable. Rarely do people want to instigate this type of reaction and they will likely avoid this in the future. Above all, your remark, delivered in private, will clearly place the ball in their court and from then on, they will be hopefully be making a conscious choice of whether to offend or not. There is always the old dog new tricks element to reeducating someone about the cost of gossip.

Perhaps slowing down a little bit and not blurting things out of our mouths without thinking through the consequences of how the other person might feel, might go a long way in maintaining healthy relationships. From these we can grow and live happier more fulfilling lives ourselves. We can be more aware of other peoples' feelings as we learn more about our own. Putting other people ahead of ourselves is a good thing to do sometimes and it is also a great behavior to pass along to our children.

Teaching children about their boundaries at an early age is a smart thing to do. Establishing positive self-esteem is important. One's true identity begins to emerge and mutual respect for others is a natural consequence. This is not to be confused with selfishness or seclusion, for that is more a result of anti social behavior, which can be interpreted as rude and unfriendly - the antithesis of a healthy social interactions.

By understanding and respecting reasonable boundaries we function with mutual respect, complying with the golden rule by doing unto other, as we would have others do unto us.