I watched a young man make a pointed comment about one of his classmate’s the other morning. The comment struck me because it seemed unprovoked. The young lady, having just been slammed, responded with an inappropriate (but apt) gesture and they parted on ill terms. Two boys, looking on, laughed. Then kickball and foursquare resumed. A typical moment in the life of a school. And regrettable too.

The exchange caused me to consider meanness for a minute or so and I wondered where such acts come from. Are they evidence of deep ignorance, self doubt, or fear? And, even if I figured out what might be causing one child to target another, what might I do to help both the bully and the victim wake up to a deeper understanding – or even a different way of behaving?

Then, later that same day, I saw a different sort of unkind behavior play out among adults. In this instance, I was no more than ten feet from the sequence that began with two colleagues passing one another in the hall and looking down. I could sense the tension rising as both women entered the work room. Four other staff members were there chatting, but once the twosome entered, chatter fell into whispers. Eye contact became fleeting. Then, the combatants engaged. It happened fast so there wasn’t an opportunity to intervene. Tone, charges and counter charges. Accusations of a lack of professionalism. Finally, they folded their arms and glared. There were a couple of “well-I-never’s” and the room cleared. A  pssst-pssst-psssst  of indignant whispering drained from the room like a foul gas. A couple of staff members who had been nearby grinned, shook their heads, and departed – just as the boys on the playground had done earlier. Nothing like a few rounds in the work room – or a good slam on a fellow student – to take the mind off of one’s own troubles.

How do you interrupt cycles that lead to mean actions? Recognizing such actions at an early stage – in time to stop, look, and change course – may be a skill belonging to our next evolutionary stage. When people get called on mean behaviors, or even when they catch themselves, they often focus on justifying themselves. The other guy drove them to do these hard-edged things and “you must know that these are not a real reflection of who I am inside.” And so on. Meanness, attributed to external forces, can be cured only through an adjustment in something outside of one’s self. Since someone else made me do it, I can’t be held responsible and anyway I was just kidding and why do you take things so personally.

Sometimes – and I speak from experience here – “mean” feels like “strong.”  My father used to say that I was good at these tactics and warned me to quit picking on my big sister. Both she and I practiced the barbed quip, the poison tone, the shun, the shaming story, the omission, the blunt insult and other gestures of brother-sisterly love. By high school, we had entered some sort of graduate level course in the art of slighting.

Maybe we can take liberties with something Shirley Chisholm said that service is the rent we pay for the privilege of living on this earth. It is the very purpose of life, and not something you do in your spare time. What if we applied her perspectives to kindness and made the act of being kind more than an accidental by-product of good mood? What if kindness were a strategic part of a workplace agenda aimed at helping staff stay healthy, focused, and calm? All of this bumper sticker talk about random acts of kindness could be revealed at last as a deeper scheme aimed at a world-wide reduction in bloodletting.

Now, here I go dreaming again, but what if I went into work one day to find colleagues making daily and deliberate choices to lift their chins, use eye contact, acknowledge that they may be on edge – and then choose kindness anyway? Choose kindness even when it feels awkward and false at first? Might it get more habitual over time? They could, through their actions, shrink monsters-of-the-mind and banish them for a while!

Kindness is no small thing. It is rare and powerful – a true old-school paradigm buster and a self-serving one at that. Lean in. Be brave. Be kind. Might the skin you save may be your own?


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