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If you want to gather honey, don't kick over the beehive.
-- Dale Carnegie
Imagine waking up one morning only to discover that every move you made -- from the clothes you picked out to the way you greeted your parents and friends to the questions you answered in class -- was recorded on a giant scoreboard for everyone to see. Although you realize that your score is changing how people see you (just like theirs is changing how you see them), you can't quite figure out which choices are increasing your tally and which aren't. In fact, you're beginning to wonder if your place in the world is decided totally at random. It sounds like some kind of nightmare, right? Unfortunately, it's not. Every day, girls find themselves navigating just such a world: school. There are few times in life that we find ourselves more aware of divisions like being in or out, us or them, cool or hopelessly uncool -- and so constantly reminded of where we fall on the continuum.
A recent study looked at students in grades six through ten. Among researchers' findings was that nearly 30 percent of students surveyed had experienced bullying, either as a victim, a perpetrator, or both. As alarmed as I was to hear this statistic, none of the girls we interviewed for this book even appeared surprised -- except to say they would have thought the number was higher. Many of them shared their own experiences, including Julie, age 14:
There was a girl in my class named Marie that everyone makes fun of. She's a total perfectionist and always uses the full hour to take a test that the rest of the class finishes in ten minutes. She's obsessed with ballet and all she ever wanted to talk about was her dance classes. Also, it was kind of the way she looked. I tried to be nice to her, but I also participated in teasing her. She laughed at herself and didn't let people know that she was hurt by what they said about her, but her mom told my mom that she cried every day after school. When my mom confronted me about it, I felt terrible. I told her that I tried sticking up for her, but it was hard. You want people to like you and I didn't want to become a target by sticking up for her. I know how horrible that is. I've been teased before, too....
From Julie's story, we see that she falls into the "both" category, experiencing teasing both as a participant and a victim. It seems unbelievable that someone who knows how horrible it feels to be singled out and ridiculed could ever take part in doing it to someone else. But if we look closely at Julie's words, we can see that she isn't really putting herself in Marie's shoes, regardless of her past experience. If Julie were truly empathizing with Marie, she wouldn't be able not to stick up for her. Rather, Julie is responding to her mom's criticism. Dale Carnegie once said, "Criticism is futile. It puts a person on the defensive and usually makes him strive to justify himself." Or, in this case, herself.
Actually, he felt so strongly about criticism that he always taught the following principle first: Don't criticize, condemn, or complain. It may seem obvious why we shouldn't follow this path when we look at Julie's example. She is indulging in all three big Cs: criticizing Marie, condemning her for her looks and personality, and complaining that she herself can't do anything to help. As tempting as it may be to think that we would never act in such a way, this kind of thinking is, in itself, a form of criticism. We're not here to judge Julie. Dale Carnegie believed the following: "Any fool can criticize, condemn, and complain -- it takes character and self-control to be understanding and forgiving." We can, however, learn from her. We all know how rotten it feels to be on the receiving end of an unkind word, but Julie's example also shows us how ugly it can be to know you've hurt someone else. No one wants to see themselves as a cruel bully -- or someone too cowardly to go against the crowd. You don't have to make the same mistake yourself; by finding ways to be less critical of others as well as learning how to use negative energy to your advantage, anyone can learn how to deal with tough situations.
Giving Up Judgment
In high school it's an everyday occurrence to be present when someone is being made fun of or gossiped about and there's probably not a single person who isn't guilty of it themselves.
-- Lily, R.I.
It's one thing to know we should be empathetic, but it's another to actually be empathetic. We're not talking about anything revolutionary here: people have been telling you all your life to "do unto others as you would have done to you," right? So why is it so hard for us to stop and put ourselves in another person's shoes? Maybe it's because the stereotypes we carry around in our heads are a sort of security blanket when we get right down to it. It's a lot easier to make sweeping assumptions about how jocks are dumb, cheerleaders are shallow, and members of the chess club are dorks than to consider each person as an individual -- an individual who would no more want to be regarded (or disregarded) as a two-dimensional stereotype than we would. The truth is that the bullying we see everywhere at school and even in the workplace would end tomorrow if everyone from age eight to 108 tried always and honestly to see things from another person's perspective.
This is not to say that you should give up all the opinions, ideas, and perspectives that make you wonderfully, uniquely you. There's a big difference between judgments or stereotypes and constructive criticism that comes from a place of genuine goodwill toward another person. Sound confusing? Look at it this way: even if some truth exists in your complaints about people, snapping at them over their faults -- or worse, humiliating them -- won't get you very far when it comes to changing their behavior. Dale Carnegie took the example of the world-famous psychologist B. F. Skinner: "He proved through his experiments that an animal rewarded for good behavior will learn much more rapidly and retain what it learns far more effectively than an animal punished for bad behavior....Later studies have shown that the same applies to humans. By criticizing, we do not make lasting changes and often incur resentment." Sound crazy? Before you answer, take this quick quiz to see if you know the difference between constructive and destructive criticism.
Your best friend shows up at school with a nightmare haircut. You:
a) Head to the bathroom with her to see if parting her new 'do differently would make it a little more flattering.
b) Remind her it will grow out...eventually.
c) Wait until you're in the crowded cafeteria to tell her she should speed to the mall after school. You hear there's a big hat sale going on.
You love daisies, but your boyfriend shows up with a bouquet of roses on your anniversary. You:
a) Gush over the flowers and tell him they're beautiful -- you can remind him how much you like daisies some other time.
b) Thank him and tell him that next to daisies, roses are your favorite.
c) Tell him that if he ever listened to a word you said, he'd know you adore daisies and think roses are totally cliché.
Your tone-deaf sister plans to audition for the high school musical. You:
a) Invite your musically gifted friend over to give her some quick voice coaching.
b) Suggest she wait and audition for next semester's (nonmusical) play.
c) Ask her when Les Misérables became a comedy.
Your mom overcooks the roast again. You:
a) Eat it anyway. It won't kill you.
b) Push it around on your plate to make it look like you've eaten some and sneak a bowl of cereal later.
c) Ask her if she wants you to chip a tooth by continuing to try to eat this.
There are two truths about criticism: everyone's a critic (at least occasionally) and no one likes a critic (even occasionally). Sometimes what we offer as a helpful observation will come across as a judgment. And, if we don't choose our words carefully, what we intend as a constructive criticism can have the impact of a wrecking ball. But unless you've got a chronic case of foot-in-mouth disease, such misfires should be genuine miscommunications and shouldn't happen very often. So, if people routinely flinch before you speak -- and you answered "b" or "c" to any of the above -- it may be time to muzzle your inner pit bull.
A good rule of thumb is before you say something harsh, consider how you would feel if someone said the same thing to you. Sure, we all get angry. People do and say insensitive things all the time. But look what happens when we dish out negativity.
One time a girl in my high school criticized me on what I was wearing. She said that I looked ugly in it. I reacted by telling her to shut up and go away. I felt horrible, ugly, hurt, and angry all at once. I tried to hold in all my emotions, and all the hurt turned to hate. I hated her.
-- Beth, 17, Pa.
Ack! We definitely don't want to end up on either side of this scenario. That's not to say you can never suggest how others might do things better. It's just that when you do so, you should find a way to ensure your words are received in the generous spirit you intended for them. Before you open your mouth, make sure your intentions really are generous. Ask yourself:
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