Too Kind?

You are the kindest country in the world. You are like a really nice apartment over a meth lab.” Robin Williams on Canada

Canadians have a reputation for being kind and polite. When I tell people I was born in Canada, they sometimes say, “No wonder you are so nice.”

Whether this reputation is deserved I don’t know. I remember my mother pointing out a boisterous group in Eaton’s Department Store in downtown Montreal when I was a kid and saying, “Americans,” meaning rude Americans. Meaning we would never act like that.

Like all generalities, how far does this stretch? Maybe there are rude farmers in Saskatchewan or uncaring city dwellers in Toronto. In certain parts of the United States, such as the Midwest, the people I’ve met are genuine and friendly. On our summer vacations on Cape Cod, I thought New Englanders were polite even if they spoke with a funny accent. And when I visit family in North Carolina, I am charmed by their southern soft speech and manners.

What is meant by “nice?” Good manners, politeness, can mask a lack of caring and even an underlying hostility. A veneer of niceness can be just that, not real, not soul deep. A group that is considered loud in one country may not be perceived as such in another, although it could be argued that part of being nice, or having respect for others, is taking the time to understand how others see the world.Man man

Recently I read an op-ed piece that Canada may lose its polite reputation now that hip and handsome Justin Trudeau is prime minister. He will lead the country to jostle for more space and recognition on the international stage, to speak up more and not always kowtow to the craziness or arrogance south of the border or anywhere in the world. If so, I hope he does not lose his manners and confuse trumpeting bellicosity with leadership as certain aspiring American politicians do.

Unfortunately, kindness is often mistaken for weakness. Those of us who are good at listening and who hesitate to interrupt or steamroll are not perceived as having strength or ideas of our own, if we are even seen or heard at all. Of course, it is our responsibility to speak up when necessary, but it is difficult and not always well-received by those who are used to taking up all the air space.

Recently, a friend accused me of letting others take advantage of me. It’s true, I sometimes listen more than I care to and I don’t always say what I really think for fear of being unkind. But I draw the line at being walked on, by anyone. So I responded to my friend’s accusation that she doesn’t know me very well if she really thinks that. She answered that I wouldn’t be hearing from her again! Defriended me on Facebook, of course.

These rude door-slammings are not what any of us need, personally or in the world. Even if we feel angry, we still need to talk respectfully if we are to have any hope of workable relationships – if we are to diffuse the ticking time bombs, keep the meth labs from blowing up, the weapons safely stored, the drones happily delivering Amazon goodies. The world needs diplomacy and compassion more than ever as we face difficult truths and differing realities.


Saying Thanks

The other morning I was sitting at the hairdresser’s letting my color sink in. My iPhone rang. I almost didn’t answer, since one, I did not recognize the number, and two, my iPhone is new and the last thing it needs is a color job. Something made me accept the call anyway, holding the phone a few inches away from my ear.

It was a gentleman – I say this in the full wonderful meaning of the word – calling to thank me for a story I’d just written about him in the local newspaper. I was so surprised I almost fell off the swiveling chair. Do you know how seldom anyone I write about says thank you?

It has been a full year. In that time, I’ve written 14 stories about local churches and synagogues. Of all the ministers and rabbis I interviewed, only one said thank you. (One accused me of misquoting him, but that’s really another story. Okay, I did get a word wrong, but he invented whole paragraphs!)

039Before that, maybe two people sent thank you cards and took me to lunch in three years as a way of thanking me for stories. In general, saying thank you has fallen by the old-fashioned wayside. Thank you cards belong to another era. Nowadays when someone, especially a young person, sends a card, it’s considered exceptional.

Why is this? Is there a decline in manners? Are people too busy? I leave it to historians and social analysts to answer. My guess is that there’s always been a mixture of civility and rudeness depending on time and place. Loosening standards of dress and social interaction is not always a bad thing. Working hard and having less time for tea parties and calling cards is not always a bad thing. Two parents working because they love their careers and also need two incomes is not a bad thing either. But do we have to let go of all standards of caring, all time to say a thank you and teach our children to say thank you? I hope not. And hope is out there in cyberspace in the many creative forms of insta-thank yous.

Nowadays there is a lot of emphasis on “expressing gratitude.” Feel grateful for all we have! Take time to thank the universe for every morning and night! Thank our bodies for getting us out of bed and walking us through the day. Thanks for friends, family, dog, cat, parrot, food, yoga, music, new book ….. you get the idea. Even express gratitude for BAD things. They are teaching us something, even if it is just new swear words. I assume death lets us off the hook here, that we can then be eternally grateful, ungrateful or just plain non-existent.

The problem with gratitude is that it only goes so far. It is like a selfie of the soul. It’s silent and yeah, selfish. Thank you universe for acknowledging wonderful me.

145Not thank you OUT LOUD to another human being. Thank you for being a good friend. Thank you for understanding. Thank you for being there. Thank you for helping me move. Thank you for keeping your advice to yourself. Thank you for the birthday wishes, the Christmas present, the dinner you cooked.

Thank you for the wonderful story you wrote. I tell you, that made my day. And my week and my month. And it may have to do me for another year.