Choosing Our Cyber-Voices

“The true essence of humankind is kindness. There are other qualities which come from education or knowledge, but it is essential, if one wishes to be a genuine human being and impart satisfying meaning to one’s existence, to have a good heart.” (The Dalai Lama)

Troll dolls came originally from Denmark; inexplicably, they were one of the biggest toy fads of the 1960s in America.

Troll dolls came originally from Denmark; inexplicably, they were one of the biggest toy fads of the 1960s in America.

Over the summer, I wrote a few posts about bullying. I thought I was done with the subject, but one aspect of bullying I didn’t spend much time on is cyberbullying. The more I read and learn about bullying, the more I see how cyberbullying has taken bullying to new and insidious heights. I’ve been shocked to learn about the extent of it and the number of suicides and attempted suicides it has triggered—mostly in children and teens.

My friend Ann shared an excellent article with me from the Nov/Dec 2014 issue of Scientific American Mind. “Virtual Assault” describes the many ways people are bullied online or through social media, and the psychology of people who engage in such poisonous activities. It noted, interestingly, that “contrary to popular wisdom, bullies are not merely compensating for their own low self-esteem,” but often they are “perched at the top of the social hierarchy and demean others to cement their position.”

I also learned that people who engage in cyberbullying and attacking others on-line or through social media are referred to as “trolls.” It’s often up to the on-line community, says article author Elizabeth Svoboda, to establish norms and tell trolls in no uncertain terms that bullying is not acceptable. Svoboda also says one way to counter the damage of bullying is to step in and offer support to the victim. Silence isn’t golden.

The Damage Trolls Do

A front page article in the Seattle Times earlier this month addressed how Donald Trump is effectively using Twitter to outpace his Republican rivals for the presidential nomination. The article strayed from mere politics to describe how last year Trump devastated actress Kim Novak by posting a cruel tweet.

The reclusive actress—a glamorous movie star in the 1950s, now in her 80s—was convinced by friends to make a rare public appearance at the 2014 Academy Awards. As she was on stage making a presentation, Trump tweeted, “I’m having a real hard time watching. Kim should sue her plastic surgeon.”

Ms. Novak was devastated. She retreated to her Oregon home and didn’t leave for months, having fallen into a self-described “tailspin.” When she finally did comment, she called Trump a bully. Many other people expressed their disgust at his comment and he eventually backtracked. Later, he expressed regret for sending the tweet. He said, “That was done in fun, but sometimes you do things in fun and they turn out to be hurtful.” At the same time, he stood by equally unkind comments he has made about other celebrities.

It saddens me that so many Americans are supporting a person who believes sending so public and so cruel a message is “fun.” Just because you may have a “fun” thought doesn’t mean you should send it out to millions of people who, themselves, may forward it further. Words can hurt. Kindness counts.

YOLK Fights Temptation

I have to make a confession here: Ever since I learned that cyberbullies are called “trolls” and subsequently read about Trump’s cruel tweet regarding Kim Novak, I have mentally photo-shopped Donald Trump’s head onto a troll-doll, such as the one at the beginning of this post. Now, when I picture Mr. Trump that is the image I see.

I was oh, so tempted to actually photo-shop the picture that is in my head and post that on today’s blog. There’s no question that it would have been fun, and it would even convey a timely message about bullying, but it would not have been kind. I would be engaging in exactly what I am decrying. Although I am often willing to overstep political correctness for a cheap laugh, I knew I wouldn’t feel good about doing something like this. If I believe we have a responsibility to use the internet and social media for good, I can’t justify sending out an unkind image—however adorable it may be. I leave it to my readers’ imaginations.

Another Segue—But It’s All Still Connected

I recently watched a very interesting TED talk featuring Monica Lewinsky—yes, that Monica Lewinsky. Nearly 20 years after she was involved in one of the biggest scandals in modern American history, she is now an articulate and poised woman in her early 40s. She spoke movingly about her extremely high-profile humiliation in the late 1990s, about the aftermath that nearly drove her to suicide, about her decade-long silence, and her subsequent decision to take a vocal stand against cyberbullying. Many things struck me in her very candid and thought-provoking talk—I encourage you to listen for yourself—and one was extremely simple: our clicks matter.

We can change the unkindness being spread online and through social media by not clicking on it. Not clicking when we see a venomous, cruel, or provocative headline, not clicking when we encounter negative articles and message boards. It’s that simple: we manifest what we give our attention to, and if our attention is on the cruel and the crude, it will foster more of the same. Likewise, we can foster a positive and healthy cyberspace by choosing kindness, making kind comments, and taking the time to encourage rather than berate. With every click, we make a choice.

Trusting the Kindness of Others

When I started planning and setting up this blog nearly a year ago, I read a couple of books and a number of articles about blogging. I also talked to a few experienced bloggers. Out of the many pieces of excellent advice I got, there was one I chose to ignore.

Everyone said to set up the blog so I could moderate comments before they went public, or at least moderate the first comment someone makes, then, if I approve their comment, that individual is “pre-approved” for future comments. The other option was viewed as dangerous: to allow any comments to appear without an opportunity to weed out the crackpots.

WordPress is a great platform and it gives the novice blogger plenty of guidance and plenty of options. During set-up, I clicked the button that allows comments to appear without any moderation. It seemed to me if I was going to commit to kindness, I needed to trust that any readers who might visit the blog and take the time to comment would have good intent. I haven’t regretted it. I will also admit, though, that I did think that if anyone posted a rude or malicious message, it would give me an opportunity to test my kindness resolve—could I be gracious and compassionate if attacked online?

Without exception, the comments readers have made have been thoughtful, wise, and also kind. They’ve inspired me to think, sometimes to laugh, and always to feel grateful for the time commenters have taken to share their thoughts. If there are any crackpots out there, I haven’t encountered them (okay, maybe my husband, but being a crackpot is one of his most endearing qualities).

Through this blog and the WordPress community, I have met countless interesting, funny, wise, generous, smart bloggers. There is so much positivity in this community and I am better for the connections I have made here. That’s why I’m so surprised when I hear about the cruelty and malice some people engage in—usually anonymously. I don’t understand it; perhaps I never will. But if enough of us click mindfully, and choose kindness, perhaps the unkind voices will someday be stilled.

That will news worth tweeting….

“How would your life be different if…you stopped making negative judgmental assumptions about people you encounter? Let today be the day…you look for the good in everyone you meet and respect their journey.” (Steve Maraboli)

Brace Yourself for an Epidemic of Bad Behavior

“Let us learn to live with kindness, to love everyone, even when they do not love us.” (Pope Francis)

Attribution: Donna Cameron

Wallace Falls State Park, Aug. 2015

It’s going to be a long 14 months until our next presidential election. Many other countries have very different approaches to their elections:

  • In Canada, the minimum length for a campaign is 36 days, and the longest ever—in 1926—was 10.5 weeks;
  • In Australia, the campaign must be at least 33 days; the longest ever was 11 weeks in 1910;
  • In France, the official election campaign usually lasts no more than 2 weeks;
  • In Japan, campaigning is permitted for 12 days.

Sigh.

In our wisdom, we Americans draw out the process longer than the War of the Roses. And, to add to the fun, our candidates engage in incivility that would cause them to have their mouths rinsed out with soap, or at least an extended time-out, if they were really the 8-year-olds they act like.

But they are adult men and women, and for many of them, name-calling, lying and rudeness are standard operating procedures. And, sadly, their supporters cheer and egg them on, giving tacit approval for boorish behavior. Recent research indicates that this is likely to be the beginning of an epidemic of incivility.

According to a recent study by researchers at the University of Florida, rudeness is contagious. Really, it spreads like a cold or the flu—it’s passed from one person to the next until most everybody’s got it. Not only do people who are subject to rude treatment themselves subsequently behave rudely, even those who only witness rudeness succumb to rude behaviors.

The study, published in late June in The Journal of Applied Psychology, asserts that, “Just like the common cold, common negative behaviors can spread easily.” Lead researcher Trever Foulk further stated, “It’s very easy to catch. Just a single incident, even observing a single incident, can cause you to be more rude…. Rudeness is contagious, when I experience it, I become rude.”

We Tolerate Bad Behavior

“Part of the problem,” he adds, “is that we are generally tolerant of these behaviors, but they’re actually really harmful.” Where outright abuse and aggression are far more infrequent—and less readily accepted—rudeness is something people face daily, and its effects can be widely devastating.

“Rudeness is largely tolerated,” Foulk said. “We experience rudeness all the time in organizations because organizations allow it.”

Maybe our presidential candidates should come with a warning label: Caution: listening to this man could be hazardous to your humanity.

Perhaps most concerning: the study revealed that all of this happens at an unconscious level. “What we found in this study,” said Foulk, “is that the contagious effect is based on an automatic cognitive mechanism—automatic means it happens somewhere in the subconscious part of your brain, so you don’t know it’s happening and can’t do much to stop it.”

Does that mean that those people who abhor what Donald Trump says and stands for, but who watch him for his entertainment value only, are nonetheless “catching” his rudeness? Sounds like it to me….  Also sounds like my friend Kris is wise in declaring a news fast.

Responding to the study, Barbara Mitchell, human resources consultant, and author of The Essential Workplace Conflict Handbook, says rude behavior can be stopped if it’s clear to all that such behavior will not be tolerated. “To me it starts from the top…. How does the leadership behave? What kind of culture do they want? And how do they live their own values within the organization?” She further notes that bad behavior must be addressed immediately. It must be made clear to everyone the moment it surfaces that rudeness will not be tolerated. While she is talking about workplace incivility, it stands to reason that the same factors exist at a broader, cultural level: How do our leaders behave? What values do they model? What are we—as members of that culture—willing to tolerate?

If being treated rudely, or even just witnessing rude treatment, causes people to behave more rudely themselves, over the next 14 months we are likely to see an escalation of discourtesy of unimagined proportion.

If we want to advance a kind and courteous culture, we need to take a stand. We need to politely say “no” when a politician speaks disrespectfully of an opponent, a celebrity, or a mere dissenter. Or when the media or political pundits engage in name-calling or deceit. We need say “that’s not acceptable” and turn our backs if they persist. That’s how the contagion is countered.

Fortunately, It Works Both Ways

The news isn’t all bad. There’s also been research that kindness can spread like a contagion, too. Scottish scientist David R. Hamilton, Ph.D., has done considerable research into the health benefits of kindness.  He asserts that just as colds and flu (and as we now know, rudeness) are contagious in a bad way, so is kindness in a good way. “When we’re kind,” Hamilton says, “we inspire others to be kind, and it actually creates a ripple effect that spreads outwards to our friends’ friends’ friends—to three degrees of separation.” As an example of that ripple effect, Dr. Hamilton cites the story of an anonymous individual who donated a kidney to a stranger. It triggered a ripple of family members donating their kidneys to others, the “domino effect” ultimately spanning the breadth of the U.S. and resulting in ten people receiving kidneys as a result of one anonymous donor.

Whether one extends kindness, receives kindness, or merely witnesses kindness, the result is the same: it acts as a catalyst for more kindness.

So, as cold and flu season approach, not to mention the malady known as campaign season, we can choose what sorts of bugs we will expose ourselves to. We can choose to breathe the air of reckless incivility or of well-mannered courtesy. If only there were a simple shot to protect us from election affliction….

More election comparisons: In Germany, political parties release just one 90-second television ad. In the U.K.’s last major election (2010), British political parties spent just about the same amount as the American presidential candidates spent on expenses related to raising money in 2012. Sigh.

“The test of our progress is not whether we add more to the abundance of those who have much; it is whether we provide enough for those who have too little.” (Franklin D. Roosevelt)

Being Kind To People We Don’t Like

“Treat everyone with politeness, even those who are rude to you – not because they are nice, but because you are.” (Author Unknown) 

Attribution: Donna CameronTry as we might, there are probably still going to be people we just don’t like and probably never will. I’m not talking about the crooks, criminals, and psychopaths whom we wisely disdain and avoid, but the everyday disagreeable creatures, nuisances, and scalawags who populate our lives and challenge us in unwelcome ways.

We encounter them occasionally—the ornery neighbor, the obstinate board member, the know-it-all acquaintance, the perpetually petulant client. We can ignore them to the degree possible, but even then they’re still present, a plaguing irritation that brings clouds to otherwise sunshiny days.

Radical Kindness

What if we engage in radical kindness to not only tolerate our encounters with taxing people, but to learn to see them as likable and even admirable? To feel gratitude for these people in our lives?

If we approach our encounters with the irritants in our lives with a spirit of inquiry and openness, we may be surprised to learn that the everyday jerks we encounter have some pretty good qualities. We may also recognize that there are likely to be people who see us as the everyday jerks in their lives.

I have noted many times before that I am a firm believer in the notion that what we look for is generally what we see. So those people who spend their days looking for things to criticize find them everywhere, and people who look for the good find good at every turn.

What would happen if instead of avoiding or grudgingly accepting the annoying people in our lives—the ones we’ve never learned to like—we deliberately look for their kindness? Maybe it’s not evident on the surface, but if we look deeper, we’re going to find it. Maybe that board or committee member who sets everyone’s teeth on edge with their negativity and self-promotion does pro-bono work in underserved communities. Or maybe we can appreciate their commitment to the organization even if we struggle to appreciate their methods. Maybe that neighbor who complains about everything and yells at kids for making too much noise loves animals and takes care of wounded birds. And maybe his kindness is masked by shyness, fear, or social ineptitude.

What if, knowing our path is going to cross with a person we have not been able to like, we determine that we will look for their kindness and find a way for their kindness and ours to intersect? We will go beyond merely gritting our teeth and tolerating the person to recognizing their kindness and welcoming them into our lives.

I’m lucky that there are very few people in my life whom I dislike. Over the years I’ve seen that people I may initially feel some aversion toward become quite likable once I get to know them. They didn’t change, I did. Everything changes once I turn off that judge-y part of me and recognize that a behavior I find displeasing may be the result of fear, uncertainty, or clumsiness. We’re all just doing the best we can, and for most of us our best will always be imperfect, since we are a work-in-progress until the day we die.

To overcome any dislike I may feel, I’ve been trying to look for the kindness in those few objectionable people I encounter. Kindness is there—in nearly everyone—and it’s surprisingly easy to find. What I’m learning is that I am better able to separate the person from their behaviors. So I can say now I appreciate that person, even if I don’t like or understand some of their actions. There are exceptions to every rule and I am finding Donald Trump to be that exception. I’m sure he has likable qualities—he’d be the first to say so—but appreciation for him has not been easy to muster.

There are bound to be some people who seem to defy all efforts to be seen as likable. They’re in our lives for a reason, and an important one. From them, we learn tolerance, or perhaps patience, or perhaps we recognize some quality of our own which in them is magnified to a degree that is instantly offensive. If nothing else, perhaps we can appreciate them for their role as being a warning to others to not behave this way (thanks, Donald!). With these few individuals our choice then becomes whether to let them negatively influence our behaviors and beliefs, or to look harder for their kindness, and to extend kindness as best we can and be grateful for what we have learned from them.

We never go wrong if we look for the kindness.

“I have learned silence from the talkative, toleration from the intolerant, and kindness from the unkind.” (Khalil Gibran)

Big Bullies

“Look into your own heart, discover what it is that gives you pain and then refuse, under any circumstance whatsoever, to inflict that pain on anybody else.” (Karen Armstrong)

Port Ludlow WaterfallEven the best of us can have a bad day and act or speak unkindly.  I’ll bet even Mother Teresa had her snarky moments.  But consistent, repeated, and unrepentant unkindness is more than a slip or a slide.  It’s often the sign of a bully.

In general, people who chronically act unkindly do so out of a terribly misplaced sense of entitlement, or uncontrolled anger, or—as often as not—out of fear.  They may feel threatened, or they may be afraid of rejection or embarrassment, or of appearing weak or stupid.

Many, many years ago I worked with an angry man who boasted quite openly that his philosophy of life was what he called “I.O.” It stood for “instant offense.” In any interaction, this gentleman wanted to have the upper-hand, so he immediately sought ways to put the person he was interacting with on the defensive.

He was a large man, a former ball player, and he knew his size could intimidate. But if that wasn’t enough, he’d ask questions to put someone on the spot, or he’d dismiss their words with a derisive comment and a roll of his eyes. He knew how to look a person up and down and convey to them that he found them lacking. I didn’t realize it at the time, but he was simply a bully. All these years later, I find myself wondering what he was afraid of. Did he fear that someone would see through his façade and recognize the insecure man inside? Had he not lived up to expectations—his own or someone else’s—and decided to cover up his disappointment by attacking others before they could recognize what he knew? Perhaps he had been hurt deeply and decided he could avoid a repeat of that experience by inflicting hurt first. Maybe he had been taught that this is how “real men” behave.

I avoided him whenever possible and fortunately didn’t have many occasions to interact with him in the company we worked for.  It would be interesting to encounter him today and see if the passage of time—more than three decades—has mellowed him.  I’d like to understand what was behind his unkindness; I’d like to see the likable qualities in him.  Maybe, after all, he’s just a pussy-cat at heart.  And maybe there are no calories in Ben & Jerry’s peach ice cream.

Adult Bullies

According to the website www.bullyingstatistics.org, “Adult bullies were often either bullies as children, or bullied as children.” The site further describes the typical adult bullies:

  1. Narcissistic Adult Bully: This type of adult bully is self-centered and does not share empathy with others. Additionally, they feel little anxiety about consequences. They seem to feel good about themselves, but in reality have a brittle narcissism that requires putting others down. [It’s probably unkind of me to say this, but doesn’t this describe Donald Trump to a tee?]
  2. Impulsive Adult Bully: Adult bullies in this category are more spontaneous and plan their bullying out less. Even if consequences are likely, this adult bully has a hard time restraining his or her behavior. In some cases, this type of bullying may be unintentional, resulting from periods of stress.
  3. Physical Bully: While adult bullying rarely turns to physical confrontation, there are, nonetheless, bullies who use physicality. In some cases, the adult bully may not actually physically harm the victim, but may use a looming threat of harm, or physical domination. Additionally, a physical bully may damage or steal a victim’s property, rather than physically confronting the victim.
  4. Verbal Adult Bully: Words can be quite damaging. Adult bullies who use this type of tactic may start rumors about the victim, or use sarcastic or demeaning language to dominate or humiliate another person. [Trump again?]
  5. Secondary Adult Bully: This is someone who does not initiate the bullying, but joins in so that he or she does not actually become a victim down the road. Secondary bullies may feel bad about what they are doing, but are more concerned about protecting themselves.

The website contends that there is little one can do about an adult bully, “because adult bullies are often in a set pattern. They are not interested in working things out and they are not interested in compromise. Rather, adult bullies are more interested in power and domination. They want to feel as though they are important and preferred, and they accomplish this by bringing others down.”

I’m not willing to concede that easily. I think there must be ways to stand up to bullies and let them know their behavior is not acceptable, and to do it without resorting to their own tactics of threatening or berating—which only shows them the power of bullying. Trying to shame a bully by embarrassing or berating them will probably have the effect of increasing their bullying tendencies. Like my office colleague from so many years ago, they will go into “instant offense” mode and strike wherever they see a likely target.

I don’t think kindness would have been an effective deterrent to that colleague’s bullying. He would probably have equated kindness with weakness and flexed his muscles all the more.

What might have been effective would have been for witnesses to let him know his behavior was unacceptable. Instead of remaining silent, colleagues and peers should have stepped in and calmly said, “Not cool, buddy.” Most bullies will back down—or at least back-off—if they see witnesses rallying to support the bully’s victim.

Perhaps the smartest thing to do when one is thrown into a situation with a bully is to get out. Don’t engage, don’t react in kind. Simply exit and avoid future interactions. But, of course, that’s not always possible. Sometimes the bullies in our lives are people we cannot avoid.

I keep thinking about the old adage that “the best revenge is a good life,” and that’s probably a good way to look at bullying in the long-term. But when one is actively being bullied or harassed, it does little good to think, “Hey, sport, in ten years I’ll have a great life and you’ll still be a colossal jerk.”

If we are not the bully’s target, but find ourselves in the position of witness or bystander, we need to step in and let the perpetrator know—in no uncertain terms—that such behavior is unacceptable. There is a place for kindness here, because if we can step in without expressing our anger or contempt, we can defuse the situation. Psychopaths and maniacs are to be seriously avoided, but your garden-variety bully might be tempered with judicious kindness.

Kindness requires action and it sometimes requires courage. When we witness bullying, we can’t ignore it and just be a bystander. Bullying is fostered by silence. We need to step in, speak up, and stand for what we know to be right.

Easier said than done, but kindness isn’t always easy … it is, though, always right.

It’s one thing to be an adult dealing with bullies—we have more options, more experience, more perspective, and more power—but children facing bullying can be devastated by it, and face lifelong consequences as a result. Let’s explore that next time. Please share your thoughts on bullying, at any age….

“Tenderness and kindness are not signs of weakness and despair, but manifestations of strength and resolution.” (Khalil Gibran)