Thursday, January 20, 2011

Tripping on an Exaggerated Ego

I would like to discuss the etiquette problems that arise when people show disrespect for one another for the purposes of increasing their control and self importance. Good manners and civility fly right out the door when certain egos become involved in insisting on their definition of what is correct for another person. This happens often with married couples and even with close friends. I received the following letter from an old friend of mine which illustrates this point.

Hi Jay,

Maybe you can do a column about people who are always correcting others, especially in public. I have one friend, when if I pronounce something wrong, she jumps in, without a second’s hesitation and corrects me. Or if one little fact is wrong, or if something isn't heard right she chimes right in. I am starting to really dislike her, and get nervous being around people like this. She has always had a hard time holding a job, and this is probably why. Correcting everyone at work is annoying, no doubt. I have another close friend who also does this. When Sarah Palin mispronounced someone’s name in the VP debate, Biden was most gracious and let it slide. What’s wrong with people today?

Gratefully, your friend.

Dear Friend,

I think we can all relate to this one without stretching the imagination too far. This annoying habit and its corollaries revolves around the issues of control. These follow nicely on the heals of last week’s column where I dealt with the troubles that can arise within the arenas of blame and guilt. Good manners and respect for one another show up everywhere. From an etiquette perspective, the really basic rule which is broken any time someone corrects another in public is this: Under no circumstances do you want to diminish the character of another human being in front of other people. This does not mean that a healthy debate is wrong; it means that this cannot be intended as a slight to one person as a means to elevate yourself. This is based on common sense, a quality sadly lacking far too often in today’s ‘civilized’ society. My advice to you is to nail her on it the next time she does it. It will undoubtedly catch her by surprise and she may learn a valuable lesson. She may have had no clue what she actually doing. Just be sure to tell her in private!

Good luck, Jay

Do any of you know people who make the practice of correcting others their preferred way of communication? For me, aside from recognizing how hurtful this can be for those to whom such communication is directed, it alerts me to a general disregard for other people’s opinions. This can be accompanied by impatience, frustration and inflexibility. In the business world, such relationships would wither rather quickly. In social situations, it can prove tiresome. However, there is no denying the spark of true enthusiasm exhibited. Being excited about life and all it holds is a virtue. But this must not take on the persona of always needing to be right at the expense of others.

When I look at my own life, and think of the times I’ve said something I regretted later, it makes me wonder two things. First of all, is this the way I would have expressed myself if I was on a first date, trying to impress someone? Secondly, is this the way I would want to express myself if I were speaking to someone with one week left to live? These are sobering thoughts to which we can all relate. The question arises, why is it that we choose the former way of communicating to the latter? And yes, it is a conscious choice that we all can make every moment of every day.

It is to this part inside of each of us that I direct these musings. If we are to live civilly and genuinely and have respect for ourselves and others, then we must slow down and think about what we are saying and doing. Although unbridled enthusiasm is what created the free world as we know it, there is a need for temperance. And through right speech we avoid being hurtful. Each of us knows that once the words are out of our mouths, the pain that a nasty or uncalled for remark can inflict is extraordinarily difficult to heal.

Before I blurt out “No”, or some equally deflating remark the next time someone speaks, I hope I will begin to learn to wait for a couple of seconds. I hope that I can learn to wait until the other person is finished completing and explaining their idea before I make up my mind whether or not I agree with what is being said. Who knows, I may just learn something. It’s impossible to comprehend what another is saying when my ego is so busy mounting its defense (most often against nothing at all). And my wish for today and for tomorrow is that we all try doing this. Practice civility, it’s contagious!