Good manners and the counter intuitive response

An older piece from the Christian Science Monitor.  A recent trip to a produce market reminded me to post this.


My random acts of kindness versus talk-radio-type rudeness

In my neighborhood, I've found that even small gestures have made a big difference.

This fall's trio of outbursts (from Rep. Joe Wilson, singer Kanye West, and tennis star Serena Williams) brought the topic of civility front and center.
Like bad weather, everyone complains about rude behavior. But unlike bad weather, we can actually do something about it. Right?
I have started a small-scale experiment to see if one person can change the public tone.
My proving ground is a popular produce market in my neighborhood. You might think it would attract a lot of people seeking health and harmony.
Not so much. A grumpier, more sour crowd would be hard to find. Maybe it's the narrow aisles or the limited parking, but the people who shop there are often very cranky.
So as a quiet mission I sometimes see if I can turn the tide just a little during my regular shopping trips. It makes the long lines and narrow aisles more tolerable when I have this secondary mission.
I start with simply trying to keep a pleasant expression. I give other shopping carts the right of way. And I offer sincere compliments.
One day I told an older lady how much I admired her beautiful white hair. Her big smile and "Oh my gosh, you made my day" response reminded me how little it takes.
This small exchange transformed the tone of each of our trips to the market. This type of change is possible in almost any setting, and with remarkably small gestures. Even if I haven't been able to spread mass goodwill, at least I am not part of the problem.
What does it say about our society when the considerate, polite gestures have become out of the ordinary? We have become too casual with our own manners. If more of us were doing things, even small things, to sweeten the social stew, those people who are bitter or sour would stand out as unnatural more. And that could encourage more polite behavior.
Some people say that good manners render one less competitive in the workforce. On the contrary, there is great power in good manners. Even teaching small children how to use "please" and "thank you," along with other little habits, will open opportunity and instill a pattern into adulthood.
As a psychologist, I have worked in communities where social skills and the ability to reframe a potential conflict can be life saving factors for youngsters. But even when it isn't a matter of life and death, the ability and willingness to express respect can make our own lives much better.
I admit it is disappointing when courtesy is met with an entitled response – or no response. There are times when driving that I'll stop or pull over to let another car pass, and get nothing – no acknowledgment from the other driver. It makes me want to yell at the top of my lungs, in the most sarcastic way I can "You're welcome!" (OK, I have done that a few times). But that kind of response accomplishes little. What do I gain? It certainly doesn't make me feel like a winner.
When my son was a teenager, he liked to dress as though he had just lost a hundred pounds and hadn't bothered to buy new clothes. One day, he and I were crossing the street together and a driver waiting for us pointed to him and made a rude gesture.
Instead of what might have been the automatic response, I put my arm around my goofy looking son as if I were the proudest mom in town and gave the thumbs up sign to the driver.
That counterintuitive response helped reframe the situation, and rather than leave a bitter taste, it felt good. The driver's confused expression was a satisfying reaction. And it helped my son see the power of a little good.
There's a church song that goes, "Let there be peace on earth, and let it begin with me." Maybe we need a new version: "Let there be civility on earth, and let it begin with me."
Many people are ready to be part of something positive. Small actions repeated do make a difference. We can start today.
Susan DeMersseman is a psychologist and parent educator.

Myth is truth

Rural Mythology

            The web has over 470,00 citations related to urban myths. You can go to many of them and find out that some wild story you've heard is in fact bogus.  But the ones on rural mythology deal more with literary matters and information about Norse gods, not crazy stories from the heartland.  So I had no place to go to prove to my husband that I hadn't completely made up one of the classic myths of my childhood. I had to rely upon another source -- actual people, rural people.
            "Don't cross your eyes because if someone comes up and hits you in the back of the head they will get stuck that way".  When you're little the thought of people lurking around waiting to find someone with crossed eyes so they can make it permanent doesn't strike you as illogical. So, last summer at a 4th of July party, with my husband near by, I asked and sure enough, every one at the table back in my rural homeland had heard that one.
            Then they began to offer other ones they had heard. Mostly passed along by older siblings and often created by older siblings.  One woman shared that her older five siblings convinced the "little ones" that if you planted rabbit poops the Easter bunny would grow there. So the "little ones" did and watched every day for a fuzzy tail or floppy ear to emerge from their bunny beds.
            My older brothers created more havoc with their mythology. One told me that if you picked a mole you would die. So as I scratched my little arm one day in the first grade, off came a mole and I went into a complete panic. I couldn't tell the puzzled nun why, but I insisted that I was very sick and they should call my mother right away. I didn't want to die without her.  I also couldn't tell the nun why, because even at 6 I knew that there was a small chance that this, like the other 500 crazy things my brothers had told me, was not true.
My mother came to get me and I don't even remember what happened after that. She probably explained things quietly to me and not so quietly to my older brother.
Some rural myth is regional and some familial and some just crazy stuff older kids make up to control the little ones. One from my oldest brother kept me out of his room. According to him there was something called white lead that he used with his oil paints and if you breathed it, it would dissolve your liver. As with much mythology there was a grain of truth in it, but to a 6-year-old it was gospel. And so when I even got near his room I held my breath and washed any skin that might have touched anything near his room.
Then one evening, as my mother made divinity candy, I took a drink from a little glass, set it down and it foamed. Not realizing that this had been used to measure egg whites for the candy, I was certain I'd been poisoned and went into a panic (yes-another one). This time my mom, who was a nurse, thought that I was going into shock. So they rushed me to the doctor for a shot of something to knock me out.  My brothers no doubt got another "explanation". And I grew up to become a child psychologist.
Lots of rural mythology had to do with health and the workings of the body. We didn't have as many sidewalks to worry about as our urban cousins, but even we heard, "Don't step on a crack or you'll break your mother's back". Certain members of the community were excellent at predicting the weather by the feeling in their joints. But usually we heard about their predictions after the weather event occurred, "Yup, I knew it was going to rain, my elbow was acting up."
I grew up with four older brothers and remember many dinners at which my father told the boys that eating the skins from the baked potatoes would "grow hair on their chest". Even as a little one I understood that this was a metaphor for being strong and healthy, yet I never developed a taste for potato skins.
My mother had her own brand of mythology. Some also had to do with health and appearance. But a lot of hers turned out to have more than a grain of truth.  She said that she thought she didn't have wrinkles because she didn't hold grudges. Notably, she lived to be 90 with a sweet, smooth face. She consciously tried to maintain a pleasant expression and with that pleasant expression often went the pleasant response, "That's nice."  When my mother went on automatic pilot mentally, it was comforting the way she continued to say, "that's nice" to information she could no longer process.
            I admit that I have absorbed and passed on to my children some of this mythology. Not the part about crossed eyes, stepping on cracks or picking moles. But they have had to listen to my encouragement of a pleasant expression and positive response. They tease me about it now, but someday when I go on automatic pilot mentally, I know that they will be glad for my smile and my pleasant response. Some myth is truth.

New Year's resolution? In reverse.

Published 6 years ago and worth revisiting every now and then.

Breaking down New Year's goals into baby steps

Published 4:00 am, Wednesday, December 31, 2008
  • Embroidered sampler on how one can begin to accomplish tasks when feeling overwhelmed. Photo: Raymond Holbert, / SF
    Embroidered sampler on how one can begin to accomplish tasks when feeling overwhelmed. Photo: Raymond Holbert, / SF

This time of year a lot of lists are written. Unfortunately, many of the same goals keep appearing on these lists year after year. They often include things that need to be done around the house, home improvement or organization projects. In conducting stress-reduction workshops, I noticed how frequently people mentioned the perennial unfinished project list as a source of stress.
Part of the problem in accomplishing the goal is that it appears at the top of the page. We often don't think about the fact that the item needs to be at the bottom of the page with dozens of steps preceding it. It's clearly not as simple as placing the item at the bottom of the page, but that act realizes the truth that the lack of accomplishment is not a character flaw, but a lack of planning. We are not just being lazy or procrastinating - more often we're missing a clear path to the goal.
This faulty thinking reminded me of a sampler I embroidered with the phrase, "Plan your work, then work your plan." Most people in the workshops had not really planned their work, even though they were making stabs at it.
From that observation I began including an activity in the stress-management workshops that focused on the process of planning one's work. It also recognized the importance of giving a name to all the little obstacles that are between the goal and its accomplishment. I titled the activity the Yabut List and invited participants to work in pairs, but it is not a complicated exercise and can easily be done alone.
The directions are simple. First, write the goal at the bottom of a page, then start a series of yabuts, all reasons that the specific task can't be done. Write each yabut down, working your way up to the top of the page by answering each yabut with another.
One participant shared her reappearing goal of getting the bathroom remodeled. It started with: "Get the bathroom redone." The first yabut: "Yabut I can't do that until I get the name of a good contractor." So, her partner wrote, "Get the name of a good contractor."
The next yabut: "Yabut I can't do that until I call my cousin's neighbor, she had a great outcome." And her partner wrote down, "Call my cousin's neighbor."
"Yabut I can't call her until I find the gardening book she loaned me." And her partner wrote down, "Find the gardening book."
The process continued with each yabut translated into a step. "Yabut I can't do that until I can get into the garage, where we stored all the books when we repainted the office. Yabut I can't do that until I get my son's car out of the way. Yabut I can't do that until I get the garage door fixed. Yabut I can't do that until I get the number of the garage-door installer."
The final step was, "Yabut I can't do that until I get online and find his number." The partner wrote down, "Get online and get the number!"
When the exercise was done, the woman had a list of steps to get her started. Little did she realize when she began the exercise that her bathroom remodel hinged on the phone number of the garage-door installer.
I don't know if the woman ever got her bathroom remodeled. I do hope that she and the other participants gained a new strategy for chipping away at the annual list by understanding that most accomplishments happen through dozens of baby steps, formerly viewed as obstacles.

What is Home?


I just got home from home. I know, that does sound odd, but it is what is (odd again).

I’ve lived in the same town for over 40 years and in the same house for over 30 years, but I’m not from here. I’m from the Black Hills of South Dakota and I always will be. I just returned from a wonderful trip there.

When someone asks, "Where are you from?" I have always found it hard to describe myself as from here. So I go home to where I’m from and come back to where I live. But now, after all these years, when we leave South Dakota I can finally say and feel like I’m on my way home.

My husband and children were born and raised here. They live among the familiar images and locations that shaped them.  However, my children have spent such good times with family in the summers and winters in South Dakota that they feel a little like they are from there as well.

For me it takes being back on those streets to conjure and revive the images and often the emotions. It feels so familiar and so affirming. And coming from a place that has in many ways stayed the same insures that comfort.

A photographer friend, Amanda Boe, provided a quote from Wallace Stegner for one of her shows. “Expose a child to a particular environment at his susceptible time and he will perceive in shapes of that environment until he dies.”

For me it is more than perception of shapes, I am drawn back to that environment and will be until I die.

I once wrote about my belief that you can go home again, “Home is not an historical construct, home is always under construction.” And now I feel, that in spite of my heart drifting back, the construction has been continuing here too and my concept of home has expanded. So, it makes perfect sense that I can now say, “I just got home from home.”

Income Inequality -- another perspective. GOOD and RICH

Good and Rich

     I'm glad that Warren Buffet, Bill Gates and the people that endow the McArthur Foundation are rich. There is sometimes a tendency in the media and politically to assume that all rich people are willing participants in class warfare and want nothing more than to hold on to their money.
     Yes, there are some so thoughtless and shallow that they do such things as build dog houses for 300,000 dollars or put their pooches in designer duds. But for each one of them there is someone who has found a way to enrich the world with their riches. What's more, many of their contributions are done anonymously, without a black tie gala or their picture in the social column.
     I'm not advocating for better tax breaks or loopholes for them. I just want to recognize the good. I believe that we sometimes get more of what we shine the light on. I don't quite know how to do this, but if you know Bill, Warren or the McArthurs please extend my gratitude.  Since we probably can't do that, maybe we can simply be inspired on a small scale to our version of philanthropy. We often think about what we could do if we won the lottery, but in the eyes of so many in this world, most of us have already won the lottery. This is the theme of the oped piece below. (Please also watch "American Winter" on HBO)

Saving the world – one person at a time

Everyday people, not just billionaires, can make a big difference in people's lives.

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By Susan DeMersseman / July 31, 2006
Warren Buffet recently donated $31 billion to the Gates Foundation, representing the largest charitable donation in United States history.
It's wonderful to see people with tremendous resources do great good. I was also struck by the apparent glee with which Mr. Buffet made this decision. It was as if he had decided not only to make a difference in the world, but also to enjoy doing it.
Most people would like to have the resources of a Warren Buffet. And I believe many would like to be able to make the kind of positive impact that a person can make with the benefit of great wealth. People often say, "If I won the lottery I would..." And then they mention a charitable act they would perform if they had enough. They might send a relative's child to college, build pure-water systems in thirdworld countries, or support a homeless shelter.
I work in schools where the need is great, and I often wished that I could help some of the kids I worked with. If I were to win the lottery, I thought, I'd have enough to do the things that seemed generous beyond my means.
But one day as I talked with one of my little clients about my life and my children, I realized that, in his eyes, I had more than he could imagine! It gave me a quick jolt of insight into what is important and what is enough. That summer his teacher and I sent the little boy to camp. He and his mom were homeless, and it was the first time in ages that he had spent so many nights in the same bed.
The wonderful but perhaps daunting truth is that right under each of our noses is some act, more powerful than we might realize, that in one person's life could make a huge difference. My work brings me into a community where the need is great, but the opportunity to make big differences with small acts is even greater.
Looking at the big picture, there are so many problems in the world and so much need that it can be overwhelming. Some evenings, by the end of the TV news, I'm exhausted, left wondering whether I should donate a kidney, adopt an orphan, or write my congressman.
People call it compassion burnout. When the task seems too great we sometimes shield ourselves by giving up, or we stop caring.
Earlier this year I tested a 9-year-old boy who was reading poorly. English was not his first language, and Luis had other obstacles as well. He did, however, have a gift for spatial reasoning and made wonderful drawings. The few hours we spent together must have meant something to him, for each time I saw him after that he waved as if we were old friends.
Then the week before school was out I watched one of those newscasts that left me with that wrenching sense of powerlessness. I could not pull off some heroic trip to the neediest corner of the world, but then I was reminded of Luis and other children I worked with. If I could make a small difference closer to home; maybe I was not completely powerless. So with a very small investment, I went shopping and found items for several kids who needed a cheerleader in their corner. On the last day of school I called each in and gave them a journal, a sketchbook, colored pencils, and markers. And with each went the message, "You have a special gift, and I hope this helps you develop it."
The kids were pleased with the gifts, but Luis's reaction was the best. I asked if he knew what the word encouragement meant, and he responded easily. "It means putting courage into someone when they don't feel so strong." WOW! Mr. Buffet will be able to help millions of people, but millions of us can do it, too – one person at a time.
• Susan DeMersseman is a psychologist and parent educator.