April 16, 2013

Two Principles for Getting Along with Anyone

A man leans against a tree looking imploringly at the raven perched in the branches overhead.
Conversation by Sergey Solomko

There are days when I wish I could retreat to a lonely castle in the mountains. My servants would be the spirits of the wind- silent and invisible. The nearest village would be a twenty mile hike through impenetrable wilderness. No one would talk to me and I would not have to talk to anyone.

For the sensitive among us- the artists, ladies, gentlemen for whom a casual comment wounds deeply- who can not just shrug off the words of the world, it can be difficult to navigate the treacherous waters of the social world. Was that comment meant in jest? Or was it meant as a subtle insult? Did the turn in conversation reflect some commentary on my actions? Or was it innocent and we are, once again, over reacting? Seeing demons in the mist?

For those of us with cut glass souls, it seems as there are two options in dealing with the world. Either we wrap our fragile hearts in a deep cloak of cynicism and irony- allowing not even the sincere comments to penetrate. Or we remain open, vulnerable, and continually exposed to the slings and arrows of outrageous conversion.

Two people converse at a cafe in silhouette.
From Rttmsdag on Deviant Art

While I would not forgo my sensitive nature, there are two ways I've found to blunt the tongues and actions of others.

First, assume beautiful intent.

The laws of physics create too many beautiful phenomenal for the universe to be malevolent. Look at newly discovered nebula, artistic renditions of common proteins, or the patterns carved into the sand by wind and water. Maybe these aren't inherently beautiful, but humans have found them so. In the same way, even if we can't apply the words good or bad to the universe entire, we can certainly choose to appreciate it as beautiful  rather than ugly.

Applying this idea further, when meeting or interacting with people, assume they are being governed by the same laws of physics that created all of these glorious phenomena and are the best they can possibly be at that moment. Maybe you can't see it right now, but you might also not be aware of all the various factors in their life which are exerting an influence on them. The quiet, withdrawn person who didn't return your greeting so enthusiastically might be suffering from bad news or impending job loss.  We might never be aware of every factor in their lives, so better to assume they are being the best they can be.

Two men are engaged in conversation. One, however, looks concerned and offended by the other.
From "How to End a Conversation"

However, if something hurtful rather than negligent slips, fall back to the second principle:

Never attribute to malice what can be adequately explained by incompetence.

Hanlon's razor is not the most flattering image of humanity, but has proven true in most cases. It has also helped me more than the first principle because it relies on an underlying principle which I know is true "You are not the center of the world." Quite honestly, none of us are important enough to incur the malice of everyone we meet. (If you are, well done.  You've lived a more Nietzchen life than me).

People's thoughtless comments are rarely planned out carefully with the intention to hurt. Twists in the conversation are almost never commentary about some aspect of yourself. Most likely, people are forgetful, stupid, or haven't made certain connections. If you point out how a comment made you feel, most will be horrified and, probably, think you a little strange for being so affected.

Plus, in all honesty, it certainly feels better to think that the hurtful comment was the mistake of someone else rather than one of your own.

A painting of a Victorian party. Couples are gathered about a ballroom in various modes of conversation.
An Elegant Soiree

The next time you're in a conversation or go to a party, try to enter assuming beautiful intent. If that doesn't sweep away the niggling barbs, assume incompetence rather than malice. People aren't out in the world to make you miserable.

A final thought. If you have met someone who does unleash a near constant or reliable stream of perceived insults, limit your interactions with them. Their negativity is unnecessary in your life. If you can't get away, try talking to them and explaining how their words are perceived.

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