You can’t please everyone. You will offend people. People will disagree with you. People will criticize you. This is true whether you care about it or not. There, isn’t that freeing?
Jeff Bezos is widely credited with saying “if you can’t tolerate critics, don’t do anything new or interesting.” Love him or hate him, but I’m with him on that. In our quest to avoid criticism or even just feeling like we’ve upset someone, it’s easy to water down our voices until they’re completely flavorless— and this is a huge disservice to us. Women, especially, are socialized to keep everyone happy and avoid upsetting people. We don’t want to be seen as abrasive or bitchy, so we stick to things we think are safe to talk about. My take is: Don’t be afraid of controversy. It is sometimes necessary to be forceful in voicing principles and beliefs. Having strong opinions and taking unexpected actions isn’t always easy. Willingness to do so, however, can be a powerful form of advocacy. People who have privilege based on their identity or their position can be exceptional advocates when they decide to use their power to serve rather than guard it.
I used to subconsciously “tone it down” when I was interacting with people I wasn’t sure agreed with me. I worried about compromising people’s perceptions of me as a colleague or a potential friend or a “serious person.” I worried about creating an uncomfortable situation. But now I think my belief system strengthens my identity, and silence is a compromise I’m not willing to make. I talk about abortion. I talk about immigration. I talk about LGBTQ rights. I talk about racism. I talk about animal rights. I talk about climate change. I will say “THIS I BELIEVE”. I will say “this happened to me.” I will say “This is not OK”. I talk about difficult things because they matter, and I care about that more than I care about keeping everyone comfortable. Some things in this world are uncomfortable. Ignoring them hinders our full expression of being human.
In some positions— like teacher, or nurse— the duty I have to other humans gives me pause in expressing things I know are controversial. Can I disagree with this person and still meet my obligation to them? Does my voicing my belief compromise that ability in a meaningful way? Ultimately I think it’s possible to be authentic and value-engaged while also respecting diverse opinions, even in contexts where a relationship has complex dimensions. Here are some guidelines I try to live by for engaging without harm :
- First, don’t be an asshole. No name calling, no ad-hominum attacks, no unnecessarily inflammatory language. These things are not the authentic expression of values and opinions, they are bullying, and they are never OK.
- Second, allow and even welcome expression of dissent. You don’t have to agree with everything another person says, but with rare exceptions (threats, true hate speech), they can say what they want. If you’re going to talk, also be willing to listen.
- Third, know when to drop it. Don’t get into wars with people. Express, yes. Engage, yes. But recognize that every conversation does not lead to a conversion. Sometimes conversations will percolate and lead to an eventual insight. Sometimes not. This isn’t up to you.
- Fourth, be very judicious about getting into arguments over social media or in comment sections. It’s too easy to fire off a response that isn’t considered, or to value being pithy above being kind. It’s too easy to misread tone. And, back to point #1, people are assholes in this context a lot— it’s easier when they don’t have to look you in the eye, and it’s astounding how many people take this as a license to behave abominably. Just sit this out and you’ll have better luck being the person you want to be.
- Finally, read the room. There are contexts where intense and challenging conversation is ill advised or even inappropriate. You can say the right thing, but if you say it in the wrong context, you can do harm.
How do you balance living authentically with keeping the peace? Has it gotten harder in the cable-news-facebook-echo-chamber world?