While there are always reminders that we must watch our behavior, the holiday season is the time when we tend to particularly reflect on how we speak and act towards others. It is too easy to forget the spirit of the season, however, given the never-ending political cycle and rants by the billions on social media. Rather, what we have is a non-stop, global food fight. What was aversion has, for some, given way to numbness and even a kind of sport. How many wake up each morning looking for news about who topped yesterday’s insult?
Though there’s greater awareness of this dearth of civility, a growing meanness is an important societal issue. For example, a check of the terms “bully” or “bullying” in English language news and journal sources revealed 119,088 mentions between November 1995 and November 2000; 179,396 between 2000 and 2005; 233,609 between 2005 and 2010, and 315,427 between 2010 and 2015. That’s a 265 percent increase in the last 20 years.
As I considered this further, I had a conversation about niceness and meanness with the father of a close friend. I asked him who were the nicest and meanest people he knew. He told me, “I never met a mean person in my life.” I was surprised at first but then it made a little sense; he was perhaps the most cheerful person I ever knew. Clearly, we didn’t share the same perception. So, I began to wonder about the meanest and nicest people I’ve known, and if there were lessons that could be applied to the way we communicate personally and professionally.
There are tangible and intangible elements of meanness, just as there are of niceness. Our personal and professional reputations, too, are based on both tangible and intangible characteristics. Taking one element – behavior – for example, one can imagine how demeanor, tone and conduct could impact how an individual or organization performs and communicates. Behavior also affects the perception of trust, dependability and reliability, thus having an influence on authenticity.
Curious to learn a little more, I conducted a survey (completed by 248 adults) to better understand the relationship to the meanest and nicest people in our lives, and if there was a gap, a dissonance, in self-perception – if people see themselves as getting meaner or nicer, and if people see others as getting meaner or nicer.
In response to “Who Was/Is the Meanest Person You Knew or Know?”, 34% said it was those in the workplace (boss or co-worker), 25% in school (classmate, teacher/instructor or coach), 16% in their social circle (friends or significant others) and 13% were relatives (parents, other relatives, spouse or sibling). Twelve percent were in a variety of other categories, including neighbors and strangers.
Ironically, but maybe not surprisingly, where we go to learn and achieve is also where we find the meanest people in our lives. It’s interesting to note, though, that 20%, one in five, of the meanest people in our lives are relatives or significant others. The genders were essentially split on which was meanest.
When asked who was or is the nicest person you knew or know, relatives accounted for 48% of the responses and 36% of the nicest people we know are in our social circles. Those in the workplace and people at school made up the remainder. People who knew us best were also the nicest to us.
Males were reported to be the nicest person by 28% of respondents and females were 72%. Females were both the meanest and nicest gender identified but the margin of “niceness” was dramatically in their favor.
It may not be surprising but respondents rated themselves somewhat nicer than those around them. But respondents felt others are much meaner than they perceived themselves to be. Nearly twice as many respondents thought they were never mean versus the belief that others were never mean to them in a given week.
Respondents were also asked to reflect back on the past five years and to assess if people are now meaner or nicer. Forty percent of respondents agreed that people are somewhat or much meaner today than five years ago. Forty-three percent claimed no change and 17% believed people are now nicer.
Though this is just a peek at the issues, it’s clear there are both large and small consequences to the way we interact at home, at work, at school and at play. Meanness can occur anywhere but it’s found most often in settings with professionals and experts – places of work and places of learning. This opens up a set of questions about how we lead, how we teach and how we interact. While we continue to think about how we view our choices and obligations, we could be a little more thoughtful, a little more strategic, a little kinder in our communication and in our behavior. In sum, for this holiday season and beyond, whether we reflect on a rededication to values and tradition (as in the story of Hanukkah), being judged by Santa or for any other reason, let’s “think twice about being naughty or being nice.”
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