Are people just meaner now?

By Priscilla H. Douglas

Q: I get pushed, elbowed and bushwhacked by backpacks on the subway. I get the finger more often than I use my windshield wipers when driving.

Every year brings a new low. It’s awful!  Are people just mean?

A: People are not always mean.  In my opinion it takes a conscious decision to be mean. “Meanness” is directed—it actually has a target.  Getting elbowed or bushwhacked may not be the result of a conscious act—deliberately aimed at you–   instead, it may be the opposite:  unconscious and not directed personally at you. This isn’t meanness, just thoughtlessness.

I know that my answer doesn’t make getting the finger feel better, but my attention is drawn to countless acts of kindness that I see when people interact following a natural disaster such as a hurricane or wildfire, or when a tragic death or diagnosis occurs.  A catastrophic event shifts our attention, our actions, our emotions and how we relate in an instant.

Think back to the shock, sadness and despair of September 11, 2001. On that day, people were kind to each other and no one was a stranger.  You probably have the same images seared into your memory that I have:  The plane hitting the second Tower and the ghostly people covered in soot and ash helping each other.  On that day we witnessed caring, compassion and thousands of acts of kindness.  We were one nation and we were indivisible.  When this happens, people are not mean; they act with kindness and compassion.

You don’t need to wait for a tragedy to be kind. Ask yourself:

  • Did I hold the door open and allow a person to enter?
  • How many times have I said “thank you” today?
  • Am I practicing “random acts of kindness”?
  • How quickly did I stop and turn off the negative/judgmental thought I had about a person? Note:  Your actions are correlated with your thoughts and you can’t hide what you are thinking.

Two final actions that you can take to stamp out meanness:  (1) be kind to yourself; and (2) smile—it is contagious.  When you connect to you—and when you smile and interact with another—you will be a beacon of kindness.

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