Being Judgmental Doesn’t Necessarily Mean You’re Being a Jerk

The Face I Make When I'm Judging You. Just Kidding.

The Face I Make When I’m Judging You. Just Kidding.

Friends like to tell stories when they get together. I consider myself a pretty good storyteller. Especially since I’ve made some cringe-worthy decisions in life and have also been “blessed” to know some pretty interesting characters along the way. Sharing life experiences, memories and the occasional odd habit or obsession is part of exposing a bit of who we are to people we’re attempting to amuse or to those whose opinions we care about.

But not all stories receive the desired reactions. Some people find a few of the things that come out of my mouth rather shocking, uncomfortable or even brow-furrowingly strange. Fair enough. I can be a bit of an odd duck. I get that. But sometimes, reactions to our revelations can be a callout creating that prickly sensation of being judged.

But in our current culture of non-judgment, I believe we are unwise to dismiss all reactions that are less than backslapping endorsements of any given behavior.

For example, years ago I was out at a local restaurant sipping wine with girlfriends. The banter was light and the laughter was loud. I ended up sharing a story about a relative who was collecting restaurant menus in order to use them in a decoupage backsplash in her kitchen. I thought the idea was brilliant and still dream of a kitchen wallpapered in eye-catching restaurant menus featuring dishes like dry-aged duck breast with Swiss chard and braunschweiger. But a friend, whom I believed at the time was missing the point of my story, said, “So your relative is a thief?”

Wait. What?

Well, yes. Technically she was pilfering restaurant menus. Slyly tucking them into her oversized bag after telling the server she wanted to hold onto it for a bit longer after ordering.

But hey! This woman is my relative. And the menus as wallpaper idea is brilliant. And all you can do is call out the minor fact that she was taking items that didn’t belong to her? Sheesh. How rude.

I truly was indignant.

But then, I let her comment sink in. Of course she was right. My relative was a thief. Worse yet, she never did complete that decoupage backsplash, which makes me sad.

But what I’m trying to say is, sometimes it’s completely appropriate for people, mostly friends, to call things as they are. To speak the truth in love.

Um, Thou shalt not steal and all that jazz.

Sadly, it seems most of us do not want to be called out on anything. We end up surrounded by like-minded folks who tend to support all of our behavior good or bad. People tend to think being a friend means supporting every action and decision. And if they don’t support us, or don’t feel supported by us, they simply slip out of our lives without saying much of anything at all.

I can be a lot like the truth-teller who called out my larcenous relative. If you tell me you cheat on your taxes or your spouse, I’m likely to wrinkle my nose. If you confide in me about some behavior that is unethical, immoral or illegal, it’s unlikely that I’ll say, “Good for you!”

Does this mean I’m judging you? I guess so. But not in the way portrayed in today’s culture as mean-spirited, close-minded or uncaring. If I work up the courage to call you out, it’s likely because I DO care about you. I’m not casting stones. And I’m mostly aware of the logs in my own eye. But If you’re my friend, I suspect you want me to be honest with you. That we should want to help each other become better people.

Sadly, this doesn’t always work out. In the course of a week I had one friend who’d become mostly MIA tell me she was spending less time with me because she didn’t like it when I called her out on her sh*t and another friend tell me that because I call her out on her sh*t is precisely why she likes hanging out with me.

It’s tough to know when you’re saying too much or not saying things in a way that a person can receive without feeling wounded. I mean, it’s not my goal in life to be a jerk. But if you’re making bad decisions, like stealing restaurant menus or just plain living in denial about the likely outcome from poor decisions, I cannot and probably should not let it slide. At the very least, I’ll likely make a face and then leave you alone. But do we really want to be left alone? Do we share sketchy things because we want others to be supportive or because we desire clarity–a friend to help point us toward something better?

Books like “Morrie: In His Own Words” by Morrie Schwartz and “The Road to Character” by David Brooks spotlight how individualism and the loss of a common moral language make it difficult to become who we’re meant to be. It’s also bad for society overall if we simply tolerate all manner of behavior without some guidepost of common virtue.

In the Christian faith, believers are called to be like Christ. That is a tall order for sure considering His sinless and sacrificial life. God gets that. He knows that we’ll always fall short, which is why believers like me could/should daily fall on our faces in gratitude for God’s grace and forgiveness freely given.

But God has also put people in my life who live by example. People who are rightly shocked by questionable deeds and who gently point out self-destructive or just plain a**holely behavior. I’m grateful for these people. I’m also glad that at least a few people are grateful for me.

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What Kind of Friend Are You?

moms-and-babiesNot long ago, I wrote a post about being a big talker and how I desire to be a better friend and conversationalist by being a better listener and developing genuine interest in the lives of others. But because I’m still a pretty big talker, I have more to say on the subject. This time, it’s about being prepared for what you might hear when you show interest.

I learned this lesson, and something about myself, years ago when I attempted to connect with another mother I met at a mom’s group. We were laundry laden, puke stained housewives whose most connective commonality was a need for social interaction and some brief play-date distraction for our toddlers before naptime.

She invited me over. On the designated day, I packed the kiddos into the mini-van and schlepped my mom gear to her house, which was equally strewn with toys and layers of protective coffee table corner bumpers, cupboard locks and electrical outlet protectors. We set the urchins free to discover the cultural mores of sharing while we sipped coffee and chitchatted about how cute they were.

I imagined the rest of her life, much like her home, mirrored mine. But I inquired anyway in order to make conversation. Whoops!

She began by telling me her husband was between jobs; that their home was leased and they were facing the possibility of having to move in with parents if they continued to struggle to make the rent; that their financial distress was causing her husband to become despondent, and her to become fearful and frustrated. Wait. What?

I was shocked, completely unprepared to hear her tales of woe. Worse, I was attempting to befriend this woman in order to get my own needs for companionship met. I was not prepared, and honestly not much interested, in bearing anyone else’s burdens at that time. (I know the face you’re making while judging me. I’ve made it myself plenty of times.)

Anyway, the moment passed. I surely found some seemingly polite way to escape being a real friend and limit future conversations to superficial meanderings about potty training or thumb sucking.

My point is not to highlight what an insensitive baby wipe I can be; it’s to share what I’ve learned… that not all friendships are meant to be equal. That before entering into a relationship, we should honestly consider not only what our own needs are, but also attempt to evaluate what the needs of the other person may be, and then ask ourselves, “Am I equipped to be this person’s friend?”

The same is true in reverse. Before we begin detailing our struggles to anyone who read a blog post about being a better listener, we should ask ourselves, “Is this person capable of dealing with what I’m about to say?” By capable, I mean in a mentally healthy place, having demonstrated a bit of wisdom, isn’t currently overwhelmed by personal challenges and appear to actually give a fat frog’s fanny. Hint: if your friend frequently changes the subject or shuts down completely whenever a conversation delves into unpleasant territory, this is not a person prepared to hear your laments. And that’s okay.

I’ve come to believe friends tend to fall into a few categories and it’s helpful to thoughtfully identify what the purpose of each relationship truly is. Some people are our friends in the deepest sense, equal partners in a mutual to-and-fro of emotional support, laughter and companionship. Others are simply acquaintances that we should not burden with personal struggles, and still others are people we are mostly meant to hear, support and pray for without expecting them to meet any of our needs in return, because for whatever reason, they can’t.

Maybe if we give the real purpose of our presence in someone’s life more thought, we won’t be caught off guard and miss an opportunity to be the kind of friend we ought to be.

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Genuine Friendship vs. Being a Big Talker

Photo credit: Sarah Dibbern

Photo credit: Sarah Dibbern

Twenty years ago my ears were opened to the possibility I wasn’t a good conversationalist. I wouldn’t have believed it had it been said straight up–as I’ve always been a talker, someone who can fill most any awkward pause with a random story, quip or observation. But I’ve learned something that maybe you’ve known all along; genuine conversation should consist of more than the sound of our own voice, whether it’s out loud or rambling inside our head while others are talking. Real conversation involves intentional listening, questioning and a genuine interest in the lives of others.

How did I discover I wasn’t doing it right? Welp, I was at work and had wandered into a colleague’s office to share a story. He seemed to welcome the interruption and smiled broadly at whatever I was saying. I carried on, holding court for several minutes until I finally said, “I’ve been talking so much and you haven’t said a word.” His frank response, believe it or not, was, “People like to talk about themselves; so I let them.”

Imagine the gobsmacked expression on my face. My temptation was to be insulted and defensive because I believe my banter to be entertaining and even informative. But the truth is, I want to be more than a verbal performer. I want to be a better conversationalist, colleague and friend.

Getting beyond small talk…

It may seem like a no-brainer, but for people like me, who’re apt to plunge into any conversational lull in an attempt to keep things moving–try not to monopolize a discussion. Whether you’re talking about family, fashion or current events, be sure to pause and ask about others’ thoughts on a topic or switch the focus completely to another person by inquiring about what’s going on in their life.

Ask questions and actually listen to what you’re being told. If people don’t open up right away, be patient. Some folks need a few seconds to build courage and those seconds of silence only seems painful to a talkative person. Plus, be sensitive to whether your opinion or response is invited or if your friend simply wants to talk about what’s on his or her mind. Shockingly, I’ve learned not everybody cares what I think about what they say. Sometimes people simply want to talk. And in my wise friend’s words, we should let them.

Questioning forces our active interest in others, and the deeper a relationship, the more important reciprocal interest should become. Sometimes I practice not volunteering information about my life unless I’ve been asked. This seems like a good way for me not to monopolize any given conversation. But I’ll warn you–by doing this, I’ve discovered that some people don’t ask. Maybe they’re so used to windbags like me freely offering up information that the need to question doesn’t occur to them, or maybe, {gasp} they don’t really care. I know that seems a harsh assessment, but it’s why I’m trying to be better about questioning and listening, because I do care. Well… not about everybody or everything. But I’m working on it.

Try not to interrupt even if you think you have something important to say. I never realized how bad I am about interrupting until I lived away from my hometown for several years. Then during a return visit, a bunch of relatives got together, and at the end of the evening, we attempted to play cards. Oh, how I remember the many members of my beloved family chiming in to give instructions on how to play the game, each louder than the last so as to be heard without actually waiting for anybody else to stop talking. I became overwhelmed by a layered cacophony of boisterous know-it-alls competing to be heard. Don’t get me wrong. I love my family. But it was in that moment I recognized a learned behavior I must work to reign in. Well, unless I have something really important to say, which of course I often do. I suppose discerning the importance of our words is probably best left for another post.

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