May 14, 2007

Addressing Concerns With Respect

Posted in Uncategorized at 12:46 pm by nevavegan

I took the weekend off from updating this blog to get some other things done. In the meantime I got a couple emails and some comments that I think I should address in an entry at some point. But I already had a whole different entry outlined, so if you emailed me, please don’t think I’m ignoring you. I always welcome emails, comments and discussions.

Sometimes a certain topic will keep coming up in various areas of my life over and over. I’m not sure why conversations with unrelated people should run in themes, yet it seems to happen. And if the month of May has had a theme it’s definitely: How do we outreach to people who are different from us? In some cases those differences are cultural, in other cases economic or religious. How do we speak to people about veganism, the environment, whatever is important to us, if they are using a whole different vocabulary?

My first thought on this is that despite outward differences, a lot of us are using similar “vocabularies” anyway. Many cultures think cruelty to animals is wrong, even if their definitions of cruelty differ from ours, but it’s a starting point. Lots of people are worried about the environment. All kinds of people want to live better lives and do more.

But the primary way I feel we must always approach others is with respect. We can’t make assumptions based on stereotypes. It’s also important to do active listening, to let others know that we hear their concerns and can understand how they feel.

Perhaps it was the holiday over the weekend that makes me feel compelled to tell overly personal stories that make everyone involved look bad. But here goes, here are my stories about the difference between approaching someone with respect and understanding and approaching someone with judgment and assumptions.

Please understand also that the reason I’m telling this is because I’m actually totally ok with this now and I actually find it pretty funny. So I hope the response of others is to be able to laugh a little as well.

When I was in high school one year my mother went to parent-teacher conferences. I think she generally skipped them, but this time she went. Right after the conferences I became aware that something must have happened at them because everyone involved was acting strangely. My mother was furious with me and I was grounded. My English teacher kept giving me concerned looks and saying that “I didn’t say what you think I said.” Other teachers seemed amused and were talking and giggling together only to stop when I approached. But time went on and I kind of forgot about the conferences.

A little while later one of my classmates that I’d been friendly with but didn’t know particularly well stopped me after class and invited me to come to her house for dinner and a movie. I was surprised because I really wasn’t friends with this girl, but I thought maybe she was lonely and trying to make new friends so I said I would come if I could bring my best friend Natalie along too. She agreed and said she liked Natalie and that her mother knew Natalie’s mother quite well.

That evening Natalie came over and picked me up and once in the car she told me she had picked up a movie she’d been wanting to see called “Something Wild.” I didn’t know the first thing about movies since I really wasn’t allowed to watch many, but I thought Natalie’s endorsement was enough for me.

So we got to the other girl’s house, gaped at all the religious decor, and put on the movie. The girl’s mother settled in on the couch to watch it with us. Almost immediately the movie went into a sex scene and the mother was so offended and shut the movie off. Then she began to demand of me why I would bring a movie like that into her house. When I said that Natalie had chosen the movie but clearly had not realized what it was like, she told me to stop deflecting blame and own up to my actions. When I said that maybe the movie went someplace else after that and perhaps had a more positive message she told me to stop being pedantic. Her solution was to drive us back to the video store to make me return the offensive movie that I’d had the nerve to bring over. Of course everyone knew that Natalie was a nice girl and clearly could have had nothing to do with this.

Once back from the video store this woman kept up her message of blame and I was feeling pretty picked on, so I told the girl that I was getting uncomfortable and wanted to leave, but that if she still wanted to hang out with Natalie and me, we could do it some other time.

The girl told me “I don’t want to hang out with you. I never even wanted to have you over, but my mother made me invite you.”

I asked “Why would your mother want me to come over, I’ve never met her before.”

She answered, “My mother came home from parent teacher conferences and told me that she saw your mother come to the conferences drunk and just acting insane. She said ‘there’s a girl at your school whose mother is an alcoholic and mentally ill, we have to help her’ so she forced me to invite you over so we could try to help you.”

My very mature response was “Look how your mother has been acting toward me when I didn’t even pick out the movie! Your mother is the crazy one.”

And that was that. Other than giving me a really bad impression of Christian do-gooders, the experience was fairly humiliating at the time, and not in any way helpful to me. I mean, the mother wasn’t wrong on the initial part, but her assumptions about what I must be like were degrading, damaging, and negated any good intentions she ever had.

Later, that girl and her mother essentially forgotten, I went to a party and ran into yet another young woman, someone I’d always admired but didn’t know very well. I thought she was too pretty and cool to even know who I was, but she grabbed me along with a few other people to go off to a quiet place to talk. Once away from the crowd she told us that she’d recently been going to Al-Anon. Looking over at me she said “I never realized that everyone’s parents didn’t drink all the time, I always thought it was normal. But now I’m learning that I’ve spent my whole life up to this point taking care of them, and I need to learn how to take care of myself.”

This simple thing: this young woman speaking from her heart, talking about her own experiences, speaking with “I” phrases, not you’s, was like a revelation. No accusations, no assumptions, just bravery and vulnerability and complete honesty. And above all else, respect and listening. I always felt that it was not accidental I was included, but maybe the result of some whisper in a hallway, or that she noticed something in me that reminded her of herself.

Obviously, nobody really has such a vested interest in veganism as they might in learning about alcoholism, but my basic point is still the same. Rarely do judgments and accusations work. Assumptions often backfire. Each person is still an individual and we have to treat them as individuals. We can’t assume we know their interests or the barriers they face. But respect begets respect; it’s definitely a good place to start.

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