Thursday, May 29, 2014

Are You Clever or Kind?

We've all been there. That annoying situation, that in-your-face confrontation, that awkward moment that left you feeling like a fool.  It's the scenario that we replay in our heads thinking I wish I had said (insert clever comment here.)

We receive our training from movies and television, where even the five-year-old has something smart (and not the good kind of smart) to say to Dad. People spend oodles of time on Facebook and YouTube trying to win accolades for their clever put downs. 

But is clever always the best response? 

Here are two examples from my experience.

I was in a state capitol with a woman of Asian descent. We were wandering aimlessly when a security guard, who might have thought we were lost, said, "Your tour group went that way."  There had been a group of Japanese people taking a guided tour of the building, and he made the assumption that we belonged with them. This wasn't exactly a hub of international visitors, so he probably wasn't exposed to much ethnic variety.  He was trying to be helpful.

My friend assumed her most stereotypical Asian accent and said, "I not with them. I married to American doctor." She whispered the last with many nods and smiles as if it were a great accomplishment. 

She could have said, in perfect English, "Thank you, but we're not with them.'' That would have been nice. Instead, and I could clearly see this from the man's expression, she had embarrassed him. No, she took it a step farther. She rubbed his nose in it and humiliated him by making fun of him. I'm sure she felt very clever as we walked away. 

Backtrack to grade school.  I grew up in a largely white European and Hispanic neighborhood, but we did have a few black students at our Catholic grade school. One, whose name I can't recall, I assumed was a member of a foreign royal family.  He had rich, dark skin and a delicate bone structure, stood tall and slim and always carried himself with something more than dignity. He rarely condescended to talk to the rest of us. For some reason, this meant royalty to my 11-year-old mind. I probably associated it with an order to the young prince not to mingle with the peasants.  

John was the complete opposite. He was short, friendly, and very funny. Not class clown funny, but he often made us laugh with his wry comments and his celebrity imitations. One day, he told me that over summer vacation he planned to lay out and get a tan. I laughed my head off, assuming this was another joke. Then I noticed he wasn't laughing. He said, "What's so funny?" And in my wisdom, I replied, "Black people don't tan."  

John had a choice. He could have made me feel like an even bigger idiot than I already did, once I realized my error. It would have been difficult, as I was already searching for a rock to crawl under, but he could have. John chose to be nice. He simply explained that, yes, black people do tan.  He left me with something to think about. He opened my mind to question future assumptions.  And he left me in his debt for not raking me over the coals, for not assigning ill will where none existed. From that day forward, John ruled, as far as I was concerned.

The problem with clever, at least in the form that is worshiped by our modern society, is that it comes at someone else's expense.  We decide they deserve to be mocked for that comment or action and that we, in all our blamelessness, should be the ones to do it. We're looking for a rush--all those pats on the back from those who agree with us, the likes on Facebook, the re-posts. We assume we know their motives, their intent, and their entire life philosophy, and we never give them a break for misspeaking or simply having an off day.  

There have been many, many comments made by people I know and sometimes even like and respect that have been so off base, so ludicrous, that a clever response is almost made-to-order. And often theirs is a response to something I've written, so to hold back my clever comment means I may let them think that they were right. It takes humility, but I've managed to choose Nice so far, with God's help. 

Maybe they were repeating something without checking the facts. Maybe they are having a bad day. But even if they meant exactly what they said, I've kept the lines of communication open for future discussion, because I didn't embarrass them with my cleverness.

It could be as simple as the person who left the comment did not know that black people do tan. 

No comments:

Post a Comment