Ears Wide Shut

Listening is truly a lost art form it seems.

People just flat out no longer listen.

Instead, it feels more like people are only listening long enough to catch an opportunity to talk about themselves.

I find myself telling people things – important things – only for my words to be completely ignored.

Don’t even try to ask someone if they were listening. Odds are, they won’t hear that question either.

Listening is important.

You can pick up some pretty important information just from listening.

Case in point, a situation my child came to me about recently.

“You may hear from my teacher,” he began.

That’s never good, I thought. My experience had taught me teachers only called when something was wrong and usually, it was when the wrong-doing was on my behalf.

Instead of jumping right in with my questions, I decided this would be a good time to listen.

Mama always knew if she gave me the quiet treatment long enough, I would spill what she needed to know.

I thought I’d give her tactic a whirl instead of jumping in with my accusations and allegations.

“I made a zero on an assignment, but it counts as a test grade,” he continued after my silence.

“But it wasn’t my fault.”

I nodded slowly.

“Do you want to hear why it wasn’t my fault?” he asked.

“Sure.”

“Well, my teacher told us we had to grade our own assignments, but we had to do in pen. She told us we could not use pencil.”

“OK.”
“I had picked up a pencil in my left hand and had a pen in the right,” he went on. “It was just out of habit. Really. I always have a pencil that I am bouncing. But she came by and picked up my test and gave me a zero. Just because I had a pencil in my hand – and it is not even the hand I write with!”

Now, I could understand his disappointment and frustration at getting the zero. I would have been devastated.

But that was not where his frustration was coming from.

The first point of contention was the teacher was one of his favorites.

She has known him most of his life and in Cole’s opinion, knew he wouldn’t cheat.

His second issue – and the one he was the most vocal about – was that she did not let him explain.

“I wasn’t using the pencil to grade my assignment. I was just bouncing it. Like I said, it wasn’t even in the hand I write with. It was not fair.”

“It didn’t have to be fair,” I said. “She said not to use a pencil.”

“I wasn’t!” he argued. “You aren’t listening to me. I had the pencil in my left hand – I am right handed! I couldn’t change the answer with my left hand.”
“She didn’t know that,” I said.

“She would have known had she let me explain.”

“She didn’t have to let you explain. She said no pencil. You had a pencil. End of story.”

“Did you hear what I said? I said, I had the pencil in my left hand. Not my right. I was not using it. Only bouncing it.”

“Did you hear what your teacher said? She said no pencil. She is a teacher. Not a cop. Not a judge. She is not there to hear your argument or for you to state your case. She told you if you used a pencil, you got a zero. She walked by and saw a pencil in your hand. So, it made sense to conclude you were going to use it. I don’t blame her and stand by her zero.”

I think at that moment, I lost a lot of mom points with my child.

I had always been the first to rush in with the cavalry to defend and protect him.

I had always stood up for him.

But this time, I didn’t. Instead, I told him the teacher was right.

I wasn’t going to call her, nor was I going to email her, asking her to let him explain.

I was going to let him learn this hard lesson.

He had heard his teacher say one thing – not to grade the paper with a pen – and thought he could go do another, as long as he wasn’t grading it.

Her instruction was implied.

It wasn’t spelled out explicitly, but it was more of a subtle understanding: just don’t pick up a pencil, because it will look like you are changing your answer.

And sometimes, those subtle understandings are the hardest to discern. Especially when we are only listening for what we want to hear.

Switching my default response

If you asked my child what my favorite word was, without hesitation, he would respond: no.

No has been my go-to word for a while now.

I felt a certain sense of pride in saying no when asked to do things I didn’t want to do, things I felt infringed on my personal time and space.

Being raised by two independent women taught me to speak my truth long before it was some kind of personal development rally cry.

And my truth was usually “No.”

Did I want to get together?

Nope.

Did I want to volunteer for something?
Um, not really.

Would I like to watch someone’s kids while they ran errands?
Absolutely not – my house was not childproof. Yes, I knew I had a child. However, my house was not childproofed for other people’s kids.

No was my favorite response and reaction.

I heard my friends getting sucked into things they didn’t want to do, and they were miserable.

“If you didn’t want to do it, why did you say yes?” I asked once.

I knew the answer before they said it.

They didn’t want to disappoint someone or let them down. A lot of women are raised to be accommodating and to put everyone else first, even if it causes them to neglect themselves. A lot of women, except for those raised by Helen and Jean, feel that way, that is.

I have joked to my girlfriends that any time they needed me to say no on their behalf, I would be happy to. Delighted, thrilled, ecstatic even.

My child knows no is my initial response, yet, he still tries.

“Can I –?”
“No.”
He sighs, knowing not to press the issue because I can dig my heels down in a no and make it stick.

In professional settings, my variation is a softer “no, no.”

I don’t want to seem quite as unyielding, so I put the extra one in as a gentle decline.

It had worked so well, of a number of years, this whole no thing.

Until one day, I heard some friends talking about an outing they had over the weekend.

I was kind of hurt; why hadn’t they asked me to go?
“You always say no,” I was told.

True. I do love my no. And being an introvert makes me also avoid most social gatherings like the plague.

But what they did sounded fun. I may have actually said yes this time.

My no wasn’t set in stone – was it?

Did it seem like it was?

“You would have said it was too far, or we’d get back too late,” my friend said.
That did sound like something I would say.

Or, I had too much to do, or I had plans.

Plans that involved putting on yoga pants and watching Hallmark Movies & Mysteries while looking at cat videos on social media.

“We figured you couldn’t go so we just went without mentioning it.”

Had my no become so standard and common that people were pre-emptively using it on my behalf?

I did not like this.

Sure, I liked saying no, but I wanted it to be my no, my choice.

It was my no to use, gosh darnit.

“If we go back, we’ll ask you,” my friend promised. “But you will probably just say no.”

“No, I won’t,” I said. See – I found a way to work in a no.

“Yes, you will.”
“No, I won’t.”
Perhaps I needed to change my default in some way. A slight tweak.

I had missed out on a great afternoon; what else had I missed on by saying no all these years?

Had my love for the no caused me to stop saying yes to everything that was potentially good?

“So, you will go if we go back?”

“Maybe.”

“Maybe?” My friend groaned.

It wasn’t as harsh as no; didn’t feel as locked in as yes.

It had so much open-ended potential that could give me the opportunity to decide if I really wanted to do something or not.

Maybe is my new favorite word.

The judgment of small talk

Being an introvert makes social situations a little challenging at times.

Even when it is with people I like or want to know better, I find gatherings quite hard to deal with.

It’s not that I hate people, mind you. Even though I do prefer the company of animals to most humans, that is not it.

No, it’s the small talk that does me in.

I loathe small talk.

I can talk at length about things that range from random trivia to deeper subjects but the tedious ‘getting to know you’ questions and chatter drive me batty.

Mainly because the mundane conversation can be used to judge and people have sorely forgotten how to be polite and inquiring without belly flopping right into someone’s personal life.

“Are you married? Do you have kids?”

If you answer no to either question, you can bet the next question is “Why not?”

People sometimes forget one is not necessarily a precursor to the other, which can make for some uncomfortable exchanges.

But perhaps the most annoying one is, “What do you do?”

Such a simple question really.

But one that is very loaded.

Depending on your answer, people are going to decide how to treat you.

If you say you are a doctor or other professional, people will treat you with respect.

If you say you have a blue collar job, their reaction may be a little different.

It’s wrong, but it is something I have witnessed far too often.

I was raised to treat everyone equally, and to not let their job title dictate the level of respect they received.

Yet, that one simple question carries a tremendous amount of weight to it.

Many times, people feel like titles and what they do for a living defines them, and sometimes, it can.

We do tend to get caught up in our jobs and worry about the image we are projecting into the world.

I have met a few people who let you know with every breathe what they did for a living and how important they were.

And, I have known folks who were humble and down to earth that did not need any kind of recognition for their positions.

In parts of Europe, it is considered rude to ask someone what kind of work they did. It is a matter of pre-judging someone.

Deciding if the person was worth getting to know. Evaluating if the person’s net income would put them on equal footing with us.

And trying to size up if the person can be valuable to us in any way.

I hate this question and it’s kind of hard to avoid it when you are in most social situations.

“I don’t care what someone does for a living,” I told Mama one day. “I don’t care what their level of education is or if they have a big, important job. And if their opinion of me is only based on how I earn a living, they can stick it.”

Mama gently agreed. “Well, Kitten, you can tell a lot about a person by how they treat their wait staff in a restaurant. If they are rude to them, they will be rude to others, too. You weren’t raised to be that way so it is a bit hard for you to understand.”

It reminds me of how someone I knew once whined she was ashamed of her fiancé’s job and didn’t know if she could marry someone who “wore his name on his shirt.”

“Lots of people have their names on their uniforms,” I tried telling her.

“Like who?” she sniffed.
“Doctors, for one. Cops have name badges, too. There is nothing wrong with wearing your name on your uniform.”

She never saw my point, but I am sure she is the type that uses the small talk question of “what do you do” to decide if someone was worthy of her or not.

The good thing about small talk is people usually aren’t listening; they are waiting to respond with more stuff about themselves.

“What do you do for a living?” someone asked me recently.

“Whatever it takes,” I replied.

Thankfully, they didn’t even notice.

 

 

Differing opinions

A friend of mine commented on Facebook the other day that he noticed a few people had unfriended him because of a political post he had shared.

I missed the post – I am trying to stay off Facebook for the most part lately – but found it sad someone unfriended him over his opinion.

His opinion.

Now, granted, years ago before we had social media, we didn’t discuss politics among friends or family because we knew not everyone shared the same views.

Back then, we didn’t feel the need to share every thought that came in our head at every given moment.

In today’s digitally driven world, we declare our views every three seconds and state, “My wall, my page – if you don’t like it, you know where the unfriend button is.”

That is not what this friend did at all; if anything, he probably shared something showing his patriotic beliefs and someone took great umbrage with it.

It’s sad because regardless of what political party we tend to align with, we are all Americans. We’re all members of the human race. We all have to get along. We have to work together, live together in our communities, and find ways to make things better here at home.

Granny would have never stood for this nonsense.

She always said as much as some people irritated her, she didn’t give up on them because of their opinions.

“Opinions are just like a certain body part,” she would say, “everyone’s got ‘em and needs to keep ‘em to themselves.”

But here lately, our differing opinions are driving us apart.

If I unfriended everyone I disagreed with, I would have no friends left, except maybe the account a friend set up for her dog.

Even then, he doesn’t seem to be too cat friendly and well, I am a crazy cat lady.

I was discussing all of this new-found discord with Mama the other day and she found it downright bizarre.

“Takes everyone working together to make the world go ‘round,” she said simply. “My best friend was on the totally opposite side of me politically. It didn’t matter. We were friends.”

“How did y’all not fight about politics?” I asked.

“We didn’t discuss it. I knew what party she voted, and she knew the one I voted,” Mama explained. “We talked about our kids, what y’all were doing, what we were going to get for dinner at work.”

In other words, they focused on the things that brought them together and made them friends; not the things that would tear them apart.

I know I have let a lot of the political hoopla get to me over the recent years. It used to not bother me and was something I just politely declined to participate in.

But it is hard to avoid now. Everywhere we look, we are being forced to have an opinion, and to pick a side.

Being passionate about your beliefs and knowing where you stand is important and probably as American as apple pie.

However, alienating someone because they have a different opinion than you is just wrong.

I thought about the person that was unfriended.

The father of one of my dearest friends for over 15 years.

And, no matter our different opinions on things, I remembered the kindness he extended us some 14 years ago that stays with me. An offer that we didn’t have to accept but it was graciously offered and appreciated.

He didn’t ask who we were voting for, he didn’t ask our opinions on matters that now seem to cause deep division among friends and family.

He just knew people he cared about may be in a predicament where he could offer some grace and compassion.

It hurt my heart to think someone had unfriended him on some silly social media platform because he shared something that he agreed with.

We used to seek to understand why someone liked something we didn’t. When my child was 4 if I had told him I didn’t like something he did, he would seek to understand. Why didn’t I like it? What, if anything, did I like about it?

He wouldn’t call me names and cut me out of his life.

But that’s how we handle things now. We want to shut out those who disagree with us even slightly.

And it only promises to get worse.

“People are really going to be fussing and fighting and slinging mud,” Mama warned as we talked about the coming months.

“With the midterms?”

“No,” she said. “College football.”

And that should be what we really argue about.

A delicate balance

I overheard someone say recently that Millenials are to blame for all of the societal problems we are experiencing.

I am not so sure about that – I don’t know what a Millenial is exactly and I’m usually cautious about casting a wide net of blame when I am not certain what I will catch.

I also tend to think this whole “It’s the Millenials’ fault” is an easy way for some to avoid taking their own responsibility as well.

Sure, every generation has had its issues and problems, including my own, but I shoulder the blame for my ozone-depleting use of Freeze it!, the horrible shoulder pads that never did make my waist look smaller, and my misguided use of blue eyeshadow.

I am sure my sassy mouth and attitude had more to do with the fact I was lightheaded from the aforementioned overuse of the liquid hair glue than it did with being a Gen-Xer.

Yes, my generation had its flaws and faults.

We grew up in a decadent decade, where everything was bright, loud, and just best described as excessive.

But we were good kids. And we took responsibility for what we did.

If we didn’t and got caught, we knew there was something worse than some of the punishments that were doled out back then; we usually had to face our mamas.

The few times I did something stupid – which truthfully, was rare – I usually got caught.

And somehow lived to tell about it.

Mama’s wrath could be scarier than anything legally imposed.

Nowadays, when people do something stupid, they blame someone else or richly tell you it was your fault.

“I didn’t know I was supposed to do that,” someone whined recently. “So how can it be my fault if I didn’t know about it?”

Ignorance only gets you so far.

Some folks seem to think that everything is supposed to be hand-delivered as an app on the latest iPhone and spoon fed to them in bite sized gluten-free, non-GMO, organic nibbles.

When I was younger and didn’t know what I was supposed to do, Mama of course imparted her wisdom.

“Are your legs broken?” she would ask. “How about your finger? Can it dial a phone? Can you still speak? Good, go call someone and find out what you need to do. When you get to the point you need me, let me know but you need to learn how to take care of some of this stuff on your own.”

Guess what? I did what she said.

I was only 6 but I did it.

Maybe not that young, but you get the drift. Mama was overprotective and prone to hyper-vigilance in a lot of areas of my life, but she made me learn to deal with the consequences of my actions or lack thereof.

If I knew what I was supposed to do and didn’t do it, well, that was on me.

I tried saying one of my mistakes was someone else’s fault and she nipped that junk in the bud fast and furiously.

“Did they hold a gun to your head?” she wanted to know.

I told her they had not.

“Then you were not forced to do it and yet you did. You only have yourself to blame.”

Mama didn’t have to threaten bodily harm either; she would either give me her deafening silent treatment or take away whatever privileges I had at the time.

See, my generation was one that believed in restrictions and being grounded. Losing the keys to the family Oldsmobile, having your phone unplugged from your room, and not being able to go to the football game on Friday with your friends were common sentences. After you endured those punishments for a few weeks, you made sure you didn’t suffer the same mistakes again.

It was a generation where the parents were loving but firm.

They weren’t our friends; they were our parents.

I know that is a tough role to fill most of the time.

We want our kids to love us, to want to be around us, to not hate us.

But truthfully, if they don’t think we are the unfairest of human beings at some point in their lives, we are not doing our job.

And maybe that is what has happened.

Somewhere, parents quit enforcing those rules and it has created some situations where people think they are entitled to special treatment.

Do I want my child to have the best of everything? Absolutely.

Do I want him to succeed? Of course.

But I don’t want him to become a jerk in the process.

Not too long ago, he complained to his father I was being unfair and mean.

Our house is less than a thousand square feet, so I could hear his stage whisper clearly from my chair in the living room.

“She’s your mother,” my husband replied. “That’s her job.”

My decision –whatever it had been – stood.

None of this playing one side against the other. No special treatment.

My child eventually came to me and said he understood; he even apologized.

It hurt me to get on to him; it did. I love my child and want him to be happy about everything.

I also want him to grow up and be a well-adjusted, successfully functioning adult.

Usually, that happens in an environment with some rules and firm boundaries.

I think if we want to start changing some things in this world, we need to start at home.

And maybe some good old-fashioned ‘80’s style restrictions and punishments of taking away cell phones and car keys would be a good place to start.

The words that matter

Country.

That’s the word someone used to describe me lately.

Not because I live in Georgia or because I have a drawl that people outside of our region probably have a difficult time understanding.

But I was called country because I have a love and compassion for animals, even the undomesticated kind.

I laughed it off and even though I am pretty sure the person meant it as an insult, didn’t take it that way.

My child on the other hand was not very happy when he heard the news and expressed his opinion in a way that proved he is indeed a descendant of my family tree.

Mama didn’t like the term either, but she may have been triggered by the memory of me being previously called derogatory terms by the ex-husband.

“I don’t like that you were called that,” Cole said.

I shrugged. “It was nothing.”

I had only mentioned it in conversation because it was part of the story I was relaying.

“But what did they mean by calling you that? It just seems like they were meaning something a lot worse.”

I imagine they were using the term as a softer alternative to redneck or hillbilly, the two phrases my ex-husband used to describe my family because, except for Mama, they all had blue-collar or labor jobs.

Some of my family members worked construction, or were truck drivers, and farmers. To the ex, hard-working people were rednecks.

Being called ‘country’ was meant to insult me, but it didn’t. Like Granny, I have no fancy pretenses about myself and could care less about trying to act like I am something I am not.

I am not that comfortable in a big city. Traffic gives me anxiety attacks and I don’t like being in an environment full of strangers.

So, maybe being called country is an apt description.

“I still don’t like it; it was meant to hurt your feelings,” Cole said.
I appreciated his concern and told him so, but I had to let him know there was an important lesson here.

“It didn’t hurt my feelings and I wasn’t insulted,” I began. “See, for it to hurt me, I would have to care about the opinion of the person who said it. And I didn’t. Words can only hurt us when we believe them.”

“You always tell me words matter,” Cole reminded me.

True. They do.

And in this case, the word was being used in an attempt to make someone feel bad or inferior.

We have gotten to where we use words like “country” to label people, to point out a difference and maybe separate us in the process.

Our words and language are supposed to bring us together and build us up, not try to tear us down and apart.

But it sure doesn’t feel that way lately.

It seemed like everyone was trying to get a little dig in, any way they could. We have focused on the things that keep us divided and make us scatter instead of what can unite us.

People have forgotten that no matter where we are from, and no matter the differences, we still belong to one another.

“So, you don’t care at all that person thinks you are country?”

I really don’t.

“But why doesn’t it bother you?” my child asked.

“What someone thinks about me is none of my business,” I said. “That’s their opinion of me and their opinion is not fact or my character.”

“But what if their opinion of you is wrong?”

“Doesn’t matter,” I said.

That person didn’t really know me, only what they thought they knew.

“Did what they say about you make you think differently about them?” Cole asked.

“No,” I said. “I already had my opinion about them. Their comment just reinforced it.”

“What did you think of them?” he asked.

It didn’t matter. Just like they were way off base with me, my opinion was just that and I may be wrong.

“I can think of a few names I would like to call that person,” Cole admitted.
I could understand that and told him so but reminded him that just served to drag us down to their level.

Even though it may feel good, it still only served to put a bigger wedge between us.

“There’s enough name calling already,” I said. “Instead of thinking of how to hurt someone, we need to just say things that can help us find a common ground, and not declare a word war.”

So, I was called country. It was not a total lie. It wasn’t a total truth, either.

The word didn’t matter; neither did the opinion by the person who said it.

What was important, was that I was reminded of how our words can either unite us or divide, and it matters how we decide to use them.

When the favors run out

One of the recurring themes Mama has tried to instill in my life is how to treat people.

Kindness, of course, is tantamount.

Saying ‘please,’ ‘thank you,’ along with other pleasantries should always be offered.

And maybe even more importantly, was Mama’s preaching about how people should not be used.

Perhaps the reason that lesson was so essential to Mama was it was something she learned firsthand when she was a child.

Mama was enjoying a bag of animal crackers one day, something she probably was just tickled that my uncle, Bobby, hadn’t hoodwinked her out of. His little cunning self normally tricked her into paying him for something she already owned outright.

So, there she was, enjoying her little cookies when the other kids came up asking her to share.

Mama, being the kind-hearted person she has always been, agreed.

The other kids were nice to her and wanted to play with her, as long as she had the cookies.

Once the cookies were gone, so were they.

When she asked them to play the next day, they asked if she had more cookies. She told them no. They didn’t want to play.

“That was awful,” I said when she recounted the story to me.

“It was,” she began. “But it taught me an important lesson. Some people are only nice to you as long as you can do things for them. Once you no longer can, they are gone.”

It pained me to think my Mama had been treated like that.

Even more painful is the realization that its not just kids wanting cookies that behave that way.

The morale of Mama’s story has played out quite repeatedly in my life and more frequently as an adult.

It’s a bit off-putting to have people only think of you when they need something.

There have been several times that people have contacted me out of the blue and free of preamble requesting advice, time, and other assorted favors that haven’t spoken to me in years.

A few even skip the fake pleasantries of “How have you been?” and launch right into what they want me to do for them.

As Granny would say, “If you can’t say boo to me the rest of the time, don’t come a-calling when you need me.”

Actually, she would say something a heck of a lot harsher and more vulgar, but I can’t put that here; I am sure you catch the drift of it though.

It has made me highly aware of who filters into my life only when they need something and who is always around, even if just in the background to pop in to say hey from time to time.

What can be the most shocking is the people that I haven’t spoken to in years – years, mind you – seem to have no hesitation in asking for favors.

“Is it something you are able to do?” Mama asked.

“Yeah,” I sighed.

“Then why do you not want to?”

I sighed again. Didn’t she get it? She remembered how she was treated when the cookies ran out. Kind of the same situation, in my opinion.

Mama weighed my complaint and told me I had a legitimate one. “But don’t be so quick to dismiss someone, Kitten,” she said. “If you can help them, do so. We’re supposed to be good to each other.”

I hate it when she does that – she always has a way of reminding me to be the bigger person, and sometimes, I just don’t want to.

Much like Granny would, I think that kind of behavior shouldn’t be rewarded by taking the high road but by telling the person they are a jerk.

“Mama, I am not dismissing them; I am just tired of people only contacting me when I can do something for them. That’s not friendship. It’s usery.”

Usery isn’t a real word but it should be. Especially in this situation.

“I am just saying if you can help someone, if it is in your power to do so, you should. We’re supposed to help one another. If you don’t want to be friends with this person, then you should tell them that as well.”

I didn’t consider the person a friend; more like an acquaintance with no boundaries.

“Well, if you don’t want to help them, maybe send them to someone who can. Just don’t be mean to them; there’s enough meanness in the world anyway and they evidently consider you a friend.”

“But, Mama,” I began weakly.

I really had no argument.

There are just different types of people in the world.

Those who are made by their Mamas to be good, decent people. And those who will use those people up until the favors run out.

The depreciation of loyalty

Not that long ago, being loyal was a commendable trait.

It was something that people looked for in others, and that people strived to be in personal and business relationships.

Being loyal was praised, noteworthy, and, at times, rewarded, as Granny discovered one morning.

The old gal came in giddy as a school girl with a cupcake, clutching a small silver tray in her hands.

“Lookey what I got,” she exclaimed, showing off her pretty.

“What is it?” Mama asked, barely looking up from her crossword.

“It’s a silver tray,” Granny said.

“What did you get it for?” Mama asked.

“It was a gift,” Granny said.
“That’s nice,” Mama replied.

“Don’t you want to know who gave it to me?” the old gal asked.

Mama sighed, realizing Granny was not going to leave her to her crossword in peace until she did. “Okay, who gave it to you?”

“I got it at Sanders’ furniture. I went by there to look at recliners – your daddy is about due for a new chair – and I popped in and they called me over there and gave me this lovely silver tray.” She held it up for Mama’s inspection. “Ain’t it fancy?”

Now, the little silver tray was not anything super special. It was maybe about 5 inches long and three inches wide, not big enough to be used as a serving tray, so I had no idea what use Granny would have for it.

But to Granny, it was one of the finest things she had.

It was free, and it was given to her in a gesture of appreciation, two things the old gal loved.

Mama was suddenly intrigued. “They gave you that just because you were in there looking at a chair?” she asked.

“Yup. It was for customer appreciation. I ain’t heard of that before, but I sure do like it. I think other places need to start giving me something when I go in there.”

Mama twisted her mouth. “I bought a sofa and loveseat in there last month. Where’s my tray?”

“You’ll need to go up there and get it,” Granny said.

And Mama did. She delayed finishing her crossword long enough to drive to town to find out what this customer appreciation thing was about.

When she returned, she had her own tray. We were suddenly a two-tray family then. But more importantly, Mama and Granny felt like their business was appreciated, which made them loyal customers.

Being valued as a customer was something that for a brief while was the norm.

Even if it the little gifts were branding for the business to give them free advertising, it was a token of appreciation and made us feel good about doing business with the company.

At least until some places started offering discounts and incentives to entice people to switch from their tried and true companies. It worked too. People would fall for the bait and change who and where they did their business.

Not me. I came from a family that had two silver trays because of their loyalty.

Several years ago, I called to see if I could take advantage of a special deal with our then satellite service.

“That’s just for new customers,” I was told.

“I have been a customer for eight years,” I protested.

“I see that your contract is up,” the rep told me.

“What does that mean?”

“It means we can set you up as a new customer, which would give you the special rate for two years and give you new receivers.”

“And after two years?”

“After two years, just tell us you need to set up a new account again.”

That part was a lie.

But, I still stuck with them for about five more years until I finally switched to another one. It was only after some horrible customer service experience made me pull the plug, but I did.

The new satellite service seemed thrilled to have my business, too.

I still felt ambivalent about the whole thing. I had been a long-time customer of the other company; didn’t they care they lost my business?

Just a few weeks ago, I needed to replace a phone.

I have been with my cell phone provider for 12 years and through many, many phones.

Not only did I need to replace one phone, I wanted to add a line for my child.

I went in to the store and asked what phones I could get for free – I am all about free. I get it honestly; remember the silver trays?

I was told there were no free options for me and they would not be able to waive activation fees.

“But, if you were a new customer you could get brand new iPhones.”

“Are you kidding me?”

The guy who barely looked older than my teenager didn’t even blink. “Oh, no. I don’t kid about free iPhones. But you can’t get the offer if you are a new customer.”

Needless to say, I left.

I called a few days later and was told the same thing.

“If you were a new customer, we could give you free iPhones. But, you’re not. You’ve been with us a while.”

“So, I am basically punished because I have been a loyal customer?” I asked.

The person on the other end of the phone didn’t respond.

I went online to a competitor. “Looking to switch and add a line,” I wrote in the window.

“We are so happy to have you! Let me tell you the awesome deals we have for you!”

It was a bittersweet victory.

The company I had been with for close to 13 years didn’t seem to care they were losing my business – they were giving away free iPhones, so there were dozens of people to take my place.

But the new cell phone company was delighted to have acquired my business.

I felt dirty, used and abuse.

All I wanted was a free phone.

But unlike the days of the silver trays, customer loyalty was not rewarded.

A curious rivalry

I had a realization the other day when I was talking to someone.

Just out of the blue, it hit me.

A conversational epiphany, I suppose.

But throughout the conversation, this person kept trying to one up me.

If I said something, they responded with, “Oh, how wonderful! I have done ___”
Fill in the blank with something of greater success, greater magnitude or greater sorrow – take your pick.

This person was trying — and succeeding — at one-upping me.

I didn’t catch it at first and thought they were generally engaging in conversation.

I am not even sure if the person was aware they were doing it.

But even my dull observations were one-upped.

Every time I made a comment, she had to see my boring stat and raise it to mundane.

Finally, I had to just smile and walk away. I was emotionally exhausted and didn’t like the competitive game I had not agreed to play.

This, of course, is not a new phenomenon. But it has grown considerably worse over the years.

Why do some people feel the need to best someone else? Is it that important to get one more word in, to have something better than their friends?

Since when did we live our lives in perpetual comparison and competition?

Granny dealt with it with one of her sisters.

“I swunny,” she began one day. “It doesn’t matter what I am dealing with, that sister of mine has got it worse. Or better, depending on which way she is trying to irritate me.”

“Why does she do that?” I asked.

“Who knows. Because she is a miserable human being and she is trying to make herself feel special by trying to out do me no matter what it is. If something good happens to me, she’s had better. If something bad happens, hers is worse.”

I chalked that up to just a lifelong sibling rivalry but have found it happens quite often between folks that are related. And sometimes, even more often between those we consider friends.

I don’t get it.

Can’t we just be happy for others, or commiserate with them if need be, and let them have their moment?

Do we have to go around trying to compare ourselves to everyone else?

Granny would tell you Facebook was possibly to blame.

Before she passed away, she blamed the social media platform for all of societies ill; at least she was finally giving Madonna a break.

She may be right.

I caught myself seeing someone’s status update recently and felt like I wanted to scream my accomplishments, too – didn’t my stuff matter?

Mama assured me my stuff did matter, but maybe that person’s stuff was equally important.

“Can’t you be happy for them?” she asked.

I balked at a response. I was happy for them. Wasn’t I?

“What if they told you that in person? What would your response be?” she asked.

“I’d congratulate them,” I said.

“Then why do you feel the need to shout what you’ve done now?”

I wasn’t sure.

Part of me felt like I wanted someone to see I had done something, too. I wanted them to be proud of me, or to applaud what I had accomplished. I wanted it to be known that while they had something great happen, so had I.

I did refrain; I am my mother’s daughter, after all, so I knew to take the higher road.

But I still felt a pang of rivalry. It wasn’t quite jealousy or envy. No, this was some other offense, that wanted to poo-poo all over whatever another had done and scream, “But look at me! I did this!”

Just like I had someone do to me.

It’s an ugly, horrible, bitter trespass that has no redeeming qualities.

I hated it when someone did the one-up thing with me, so why would I get the hankering to do the same thing?

Mama reminded me Pop used to do it, standing around Kelly Lumber Yard, with his buddies all bragging about their grandchildren. He loved to save his turn to the very last, so he could tell them how his only granddaughter had made straight A’s.

“That’s different,” I told her. “That was the equivalent of the biggest fish they caught but instead of fish, they used grandkids. And it just feels different.”

“Why does it feel different, Kitten?” Mama asked. “Because someone was bragging on you?”

Ouch. I didn’t see that one coming.

But that wasn’t the reason.
Maybe it was the context of the situation. When those men gathered ‘round with their cups of coffee and red link biscuits waiting on their construction supplies, they knew they were getting in a braggart’s folly. They also wanted to share what their grandchildren had done – not them. It wasn’t about them but about someone they loved.

And that is vastly different than my recent experience.

The person in question had a history of no matter what I was talking about, she always had to one-up. It wasn’t just me, it was everyone.

It was a matter of belittling everything anyone else had ever done or thought about doing.

It circled back to Granny’s earlier comment about her sister doing the very thing to her because she was miserable. At least in Granny’s opinion, she was.

“You know what Granny told her sister the last time she tried that one-up game with her?” Mama asked.

“What?” Inquiring minds truly did want to know.

“She told her that sometimes it wasn’t always about her,” Mama said.

“And sometimes, I think that’s good reminder for us all.”

A modern-day impropriety

According to my dear, crazy redheaded Mama, the end of civility fell upon my generation.

Hers, she claims, had a sense of decency.

“We didn’t talk the way you and your friends do. It was unheard of,” she declared one day.

I was not sure what she was referring to; she thinks everything that I say is inappropriate, even when I am merely stating a fact.

“What are you talking about?” I asked her, not really wanting to know.

“The things you say in mixed company. It’s not proper.”

Mixed company was Mama’s definition of men and women. And based on her boundaries, saying pretty much other than “Hello,” was rude and improper.

“What did I say?” I asked.

“More like what didn’t you say. I can’t believe you talk that way around menfolk.”
I can’t believe my mother uses the phrase “menfolk.” How old was she exactly?

“Mother, just because your generation was so hung up on silly stuff does not mean mine is,” I said. “Generation X-ers are a little bit different.”

Mama sniffed. “It’s still is rude and just shouldn’t be done.”

What got her knickers in a knot on this particular day was my recounting of what I had said to the owner of the feed store about Doodle.

I had commented the parking lot pup was part pitbull, and while we weren’t sure what she was mixed with, we felt certain her southern hemisphere was pittie because she had a wiggly backside.

Except, I said the other b-word that meant backside.

Mama had a fit.

“I can’t believe you told a man that!” she cried.

“What?”

That! How could you?”

“Mama, they hear worse than that on the radio or the news. Trust me. Me saying that word is the least offensive thing that was said that day.”
“It’s not a matter of offending someone. It’s a matter of talking properly. A woman is not supposed to talk like that in front of a man,” she stated.

In Mama’s world, this should have been put in the Bill of Rights or engraved on stone and handed to Moses. She had a list of certain categories and words that she felt like should not be mentioned in front of or in discussion with members of the opposite sex. It would be easier to list the ones she found acceptable – food, weather, and only non-controversial books.

“I don’t know if you have jumped into the 21st century yet or not, Mama, but men and women have been having discussions on these topics for a while now. I am sure you have watched television; they talk about all kinds of things you deem improper on TV.”

She sighed. “And that’s probably why I prefer reruns of Perry Mason to some of these shows. Your uncle and I tried to watch an episode of Mom one night – I thought I would like it because the taller woman had been on West Wing with Mark Harmon. You know he’s Gibbs and I have always liked him. Anyway, it was the most atrocious thing I have ever seen. We turned it. It was embarrassing to sit there and hear that kind of language with my brother sitting three feet from me.”

“Mama, are you really this hypersensitive?”

I could hear her bristle on the other end of the phone. “I don’t consider myself hypersensitive. I just think that there is no decorum left in your generation and those that came after it. Nothing is sacred, and everything is up for discussion, and it does not matter who is present.”

Mama, bless her heart, would have a huge fit if she had ever heard some hardcore rap music.

I am not sure why she has been so unyielding in this area, but she has. She has always been mortified about me discussing anything she deemed the least bit delicate within earshot of any men I knew, unless I was married to them. And even then, she thought it may not need to be shared.

“I think you are being awfully silly. I think most women discuss these things in this day and age,” I said.

Good lord – I had been reduced to using the phrase ‘in this day and age’ – I was officially old.

“I am not silly,” she insisted. “I just think, if you look back on the course of history and start looking at when things started going wrong in this world, you will notice it began with language. Our language helps set us apart and give us boundaries. People who may not have had much money still knew how to talk properly. Now, everyone talks so plainly, it makes them look unintelligent and uneducated. People just say anything now – and don’t care who hears it. And it brings us all down.”

There you have it.

The downfall of civilization was brought about by the impropriety of our language, at least according to Mama’s theory.