Category: ramblings

Commenting on Others’ Appearances: The Beard Factor

As a linguistics major in college, I got to learn all sorts of facts about the way we communicate with others. Stuff I still think about, decades later. For example, the effects of pausing preference (the amount of time we wait before we assume the person we’re talking to is done speaking, and we can speak). Men’s pausing preference is shorter than women’s, which leads to men speaking more often in a conversation. Not just that, but women walk away from the conversation feeling like they were constantly interrupted, but men walk away thinking everything went smoothly. All because of pausing preference. (The same is true for northerners vs. southerners. Southerners have a longer pausing preference than northerners. Generally speaking.)

For more information about this, check out conversation analysis. But today’s post isn’t about that. It’s about a segment of sociolinguistics, the study of how language is used in society. Today, we’re talking about “things you can talk to strangers and acquaintances about.”

It’s been a while since I had my class, but this is what I remember: in English, there are certain topics that are considered “safe” conversation starters. The weather is the old go-to. You can talk about the weather with just about anyone you’d like. Go up to a person in the park and say, “Lovely sunshine, isn’t it?” and you might have a brief chat about today’s weather, tomorrow’s weather, and the like. Similarly, you can talk to strangers if they have a dog or pet with them, or a baby. As long as you’re saying nice things, of course. There’s a big difference between telling a person, “What a lovely baby!” and telling a person, “Your baby looks seriously messed up. Did you do something to it?”

Compliments are safe. Critiques are not.

With acquaintances, there’s another category of safe conversation starters: change in appearance. If you see someone is wearing a new dress, or has a new haircut, it’s totally fine to go up to them and compliment the new dress or haircut. Or even just observe that they look different, with the implication that it looks nice.

Sure, you’ll get people from time to time who don’t fully understand this. They might comment how much they dislike your haircut. Or how ugly that dress is. But these people are generally socially awkward. They’re trying to follow the norms, and failing. They’re the exception.

Interestingly, I’ve observed this all fall apart in one specific area of appearance: beards. If you have a beard (particularly if you’ve just started growing a beard), people seem to feel entitled to say exactly what they think about that beard, regardless of how well they know you. “You look like a mountain man.” “Hey there, Grizzly Adams.” “Your beard looks so shaggy.” “When are you going to shave?” “I prefer beards that are neatly trimmed.” “Your beard is too gray.” “That’s ugly.”

When I was growing a beard, and for several years after I first had one, I had all of these things said to me. Exact quotes. (Well the one about being gray is something that’s a new addition to the mixture.) But I’ve seen the same thing happen to friends who have beards. Somehow, it seems that society or certain people in society believe that not only are beards safe to comment about, but they’re safe to critique.

Imagine for a moment if I went up to a woman and made some of these same observations about her dress, or her hair, or her general appearance. “You look ugly.” “Didn’t have too much time to get ready this morning, did you?” “I like you much better with more/less makeup.” “That haircut is hideous.”

As I write those, it just now occurs to me that perhaps those are all things women have to put up with all the time. Not being a woman myself (and generally being a polite person who doesn’t comment on my personal opinion of others’ appearances), I might just not get exposed to that. But I’d like to think that if women get those remarks, it’s a sign that the person making the remark is a sexist jerk, or fairly petty. Correct me in the comments, and my apologies in advance if I’m just not better informed about that.

The people commenting on my beard (and my friends’ beards) are generally people who I don’t think would go up to a person and insult their appearance. Somehow, however, they feel like their personal preference for or against facial hair is something they should share with as many people as possible. Certainly with people who have facial hair.

To those people, might I just say that this innate feeling to critique a man’s facial hair is . . . misplaced? Misguided? Unwanted? I’d like to see more people lump beards in with hair cuts and new clothes. You can comment if you think it looks nice, but otherwise . . .

Just don’t mention it.

Lessons Learned While Biting My Mouth

Look. I’m a thinker. Sometime the thinks come to me when I’m pondering profound mysteries of the universe. Sometimes they come to me when I’m failing at a task I’ve done every day almost since I was born. Right before my vacation, I bit my mouth. My lip, to be exact. Hard. And then I bit it in the same spot the next day, and once more time that night.

It was a bad bite. Bloody. Painful. Hard enough to draw tears, and deep enough to hurt for about a week afterward. It hurt to talk. Hurt to move my mouth at all, really. And I only remembered this last night when I bit my tongue while eating. Not a bad bite, but enough to make me sigh inwardly. Here we go again.

So this morning as I was getting ready for the day, I wondered what I would blog about, and I thought about complaining about biting my mouth and now my tongue. (Yes. Sometimes I contemplate making really stupid blog posts. Aren’t you thankful I don’t actually write them?) As soon as the thought occurred to me, I dismissed it. What in the world would I write about? It would just be long and whiny, and what would be the point? It wasn’t like I could come up with some neat comparison to the experience that would make sense on a broader scale, right?

Except then I did, and so I’m writing the post after all.

Here’s the thing: we all bite our mouth or our tongue from time to time. It just happens. We have a ton of experience eating. We almost always successfully chew things without letting our cheek or tongue get in the way. I don’t know of anyone who actively goes out trying to bite parts of their mouth instead of biting that delicious brownie or piece of bread or whatever else they were actually trying to eat. And yet it still happens. Do something enough, and you’re bound to make a mistake now and then.

And I think the same thing happens when we speak. There are times all of us do or say something that we didn’t mean to do or say. Maybe we didn’t think things through enough before we said it, or maybe we thought it would sound one way but it came out another. But it happens.

In today’s “gotcha” culture, it seems like people want to ignore that fact. Speaking as someone who blogs on a regular basis, even the occasional blog post will go awry. Some of them don’t age well over time. Something I wrote years ago might not read as smoothly in light of changes to society. I’ve seen people’s old posts brought out from a decade ago and used to beat them over the head. It’s not right.

I believe everyone should get some slack when it comes to what they do and say. I’m not saying they should have immunity, or they should be given a Get Out of Jail Card or anything like that. If I say or do something that’s hurtful, even if it’s unintentional, I’d like to think I’d apologize for the hurt caused. But I’d also like to think that apology would be accepted, and we could all move on quickly.

This is something I need to remember. It can be tempting to get upset because of something you read or hear. Tempting to hold it against someone. But we all have those moments when our words bite us in the same way we bite our mouths.

And that’s my deep thought of the day.

Avoiding Fear

A few weeks ago, I read a Micheal Crichton novel about global warming: State of Fear. It came out in 2004, and it was based on the premise that global warming was basically a big hoax. That it wasn’t nearly as cut and dried as “everyone” wanted you to think.

It’s a tin foil hat book, basically. Though it did raise some interesting points and made me think about how research is presented and consumed. (But seriously, the book came out in 2004. Here we are 13 years later, and the arguments it makes don’t really hold up so well over time.)

However, one part of the book that appealed to me and which I still think about is how it argued that politicians and leaders prefer a populace that’s afraid. Fear is a big unifier, and if there isn’t something to be afraid of, people will manufacture it in order to gain leverage. I believe this is true, and I’ve tried to stop falling for the technique when I can.

I have one great example from my life where I let fear rule me. It was during the auditions for district band in high school. I was playing bassoon, and I was terrified of that audition. I went in, and I did horrendously. My fingers were shaking uncontrollably, I couldn’t breathe, and I flubbed pretty much every part of that audition. When we got the results back, I was so low. Low enough that my score would have been dead last in pretty much any instrument in comparison, no matter how many people tried out. The other three bassoonists who auditioned had scores over 100. I think mine was an 8.

It was bad.

But I still got in. Why? Two reasons, I think. First, they needed 4 bassoonists, and only 4 tried out. But I also believe my music teacher pulled some strings. He knew my skill level, regardless of how poorly I played. I have to think he reassured the other judges that I was much better than those few minutes of audition would lead them to believe.

Fear makes us perform poorly. It gets in the way of our thinking. It makes us doubt our abilities. It can skew your viewpoint. It’s one of the worst motivations to do something I can think of. And yet it’s also one of the most effective motivators, and it’s used all the time.

It’s used in religion, to frighten people out of sin. It’s used in the workplace to keep employees in line. It’s used in politics on both sides of the aisle. Trump wanted (and continues to want) Americans to be afraid of the future and the present. Others want us to be afraid of Trump. But fear, while an effective motivator, is also one with the shortest duration. Remove the active fear, and you remove the motivation.

On Sunday, President Uchtdorf, second counselor in the First Presidency of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, gave a great talk about the evils of fear, and that made me think more about the subject. It’s a great talk (and not just because he officially endorses falling asleep in church), and I encourage you to give it a listen.

I took away three things from the talk:

  1. I should not let myself be motivated by fear in any sphere of my life. I should try to do my best to be working for something, not against something. In other words, pick the things I love in life. The goals I want to achieve. Strive to achieve them. Strive to make the world, my family, and myself better by improving the things I love instead of trying to extinguish the things I fear.
  2. I should avoid using fear as a motivator for others. I’m not sure how often I do this, but I’m going to try to pay attention to times when I seem to be making threats instead of promises. I know I do it as a parent from time to time. It’s hard not to. But I certainly don’t want my kids to be scared of me, though sometimes that seems like the only way to get through to them. I think it’s the easier way, but not the better way.
  3. I can control those two points. How fear motivates me and how I use fear to motivate others. Beyond that, I can speak out against using fear, but I have to recognize how other people are motivated is out of my control, as well as how they choose to motivate others. I can speak out against fear, but ultimately it’s up to other people to decide how they want to use it in their life.

To me, the opposite of fear in these situations is love. To do things because you want a particular outcome, not because you’re afraid of its opposite. Perhaps one solution, when you feel you might be letting yourself be governed by fear, is to take a step back and look at what that fear is driving you towards. Sure, you’re fleeing something scary, but if it’s taking you in the direction of something you also don’t like, what good is that doing you? And if it’s taking you in a direction you want to be going, why not choose to strive to reach that place, instead of just trying to get away from the place you fear?

The best way to get someplace is to know where you’re going, not to know where you don’t want to end up. That seems like a statement that should be self evident, but I think it’s easy to forget when you’re in the trenches. I believe politicians love fear because it gets people moving. Moving away from their opponents, and never mind where they’re ending up instead. And when you believe passionately in a cause, and other people don’t share that feeling, it can be very tempting to try and resort to fear to get them to agree with you. But unless that fear is constantly present and immediate, it’s too easy to forget.

Anyway. I’m out of time for today. To sum up, I’m going to try to pay attention the next while to see when fear is being used against me or against people around me, and I encourage you to do the same. (Seriously. I’ve heard if you don’t, then you’re going to get torn apart by rabid wolves.)

On Feeding the Hungry

I just had a fairly serious post yesterday, and I’m following it up now with something even more broody. Apologies in advance. I’ll try to return to fluff pieces and movie reviews next week, but this blog is fairly stream-of-consciousness, and this is where my stream is flowing right now. It all comes down to two articles I read the past few days. The first is a fantastic piece in Bloomberg, focusing on how somehow Utah is keeping the American Dream alive when it’s faltering in other states. It talks about how the Mormon church plays a big role in that equation, and it’s fantastic reading for everyone. It felt like a high note for my religion. We Mormons can and do have plenty of problems, but we also do some things right, and it was very nice to be reminded of that by an unbiased source.

But then I came across this bit of news the next day: video of a town meeting in Draper, Utah to discuss the possibility of a homeless shelter being built there. The crowd was very upset, booing a homeless man who had come to speak in favor of the project, yelling at the mayor who had volunteered the town to be considered, and from the video, things got pretty ugly. From reading the article, it appears that they weren’t simply angry that a homeless shelter might be built in their city, but rather that they were also upset the mayor might have potentially had ulterior motives for it. Still quotes like “Another resident proposed buying for homeless residents one-way tickets to another city” don’t really give you warm fuzzies.

It’s important to note as well that the Draper meeting wasn’t just for Mormons or anything like that. Yet as the Bloomberg piece points out, it’s very hard in Utah to remove the Mormon element from any part of Utah life. It’s everywhere, for good and bad.

So which is it? Are Mormons doing a great job helping their neighbor out, or are they reluctant to actually hear the plight of the homeless? My gut says, “Both.”

I have a hard time finding fault with the people in the Draper meeting. (Well, let me rephrase that. The way they responded was totally out of line and unproductive. There’s certainly plenty of fault to be found in any group resorting to the kind of mob mentality shown in that video.) What I mean is that I’ve been to the downtown Salt Lake homeless shelter. By accident, as I was trying to find my way to public transportation, I walked through the area, and honestly it was one of the scarier areas of any city I’ve ever walked through. It was the middle of the day, and people were literally shooting up drugs right there on the sidewalk. From the looks I got and the attitude in the area, I didn’t feel safe at all. (Granted, I was also walking through in a suit jacket. Because I was lost, and I also didn’t think Salt Lake had any areas to be worried about downtown. So some of the feeling is on me. But still.)

If my town was wanting to bring in a homeless shelter, and I knew the result of a homeless shelter might be anything like that area in downtown Salt Lake I walked through, I’d be totally against the idea. I’d be concerned for the safety of my children and my neighborhood. Flat out. End of story. (Though I’d still like to think I wouldn’t start booing the homeless advocates who are just trying to solve a very real problem.)

So what is the answer? In some ways, the problem has been caused by the solution. From conversations I’ve had with residents and community workers in Salt Lake, my understanding is that word of Salt Lake’s success with helping the homeless got out, and more and more homeless were attracted to the area. This overwhelmed the success they’d had, causing the system to spiral out of control, resulting in the area of Salt Lake I walked through. I’d like to think the answer is to dig down and keep trying to do what was working before. That it will eventually all even out in the end. But I’m not in the area anymore, and I realize having outsiders point out solutions is often not very helpful at all.

A friend posted the following quote from The Book of Mormon, which certainly seems to apply: Mosiah 4: 16-22

16 And also, ye yourselves will succor those that stand in need of your succor; ye will administer of your substance unto him that standeth in need; and ye will not suffer that the beggar putteth up his petition to you in vain, and turn him out to perish.

17 Perhaps thou shalt say: The man has brought upon himself his misery; therefore I will stay my hand, and will not give unto him of my food, nor impart unto him of my substance that he may not suffer, for his punishments are just—

18 But I say unto you, O man, whosoever doeth this the same hath great cause to repent; and except he repenteth of that which he hath done he perisheth forever, and hath no interest in the kingdom of God.

19 For behold, are we not all beggars? Do we not all depend upon the same Being, even God, for all the substance which we have, for both food and raiment, and for gold, and for silver, and for all the riches which we have of every kind?

20 And behold, even at this time, ye have been calling on his name, and begging for a remission of your sins. And has he suffered that ye have begged in vain? Nay; he has poured out his Spirit upon you, and has caused that your hearts should be filled with joy, and has caused that your mouths should be stopped that ye could not find utterance, so exceedingly great was your joy.

21 And now, if God, who has created you, on whom you are dependent for your lives and for all that ye have and are, doth grant unto you whatsoever ye ask that is right, in faith, believing that ye shall receive, O then, how ye ought to impart of the substance that ye have one to another.

22 And if ye judge the man who putteth up his petition to you for your substance that he perish not, and condemn him, how much more just will be your condemnation for withholding your substance, which doth not belong to you but to God, to whom also your life belongeth; and yet ye put up no petition, nor repent of the thing which thou hast done.

Words like that really hit home with me, and not in a “So glad I already do that” sort of way. More in a “do I need to change my ways” vein. I don’t pay panhandlers money, as a rule. I am personally skeptical that they really need the help. I’ve personally seen panhandlers willfully deceive, and so I decided not to give to them, choosing instead to donate money and food to organizations that are set up to help people in need.

As I think about it, some of it comes down to what constitutes a real petition? A sign on the sidewalk and an unwashed face? I’m not sure, especially when we live in a country that has support systems in place. Perhaps my “no panhandlers” policy is misguided. I still need to come to grips with it in my head, and I’d welcome input on it.

But let’s extend it farther. Because there are people in this world who need help, who have not helped themselves. I’m talking on a local, personal level. I might see someone in a jam that is almost 100% of their own making. And my typical response to this is to not pitch in and help unless it’s absolutely necessary, emergency-level stuff. “Poor planning on your part does not constitute an emergency on my part” is a quote I often think to myself to justify my actions.

Am I wrong?

Sometimes, almost definitely yes. Sometimes, almost definitely no. There are certainly people who need to learn the consequences of their choices. There are certainly people who need to be protected from them. The quote from The Book of Mormon reminds me that I am often in bad circumstances, spiritually, through no one’s fault but my own. Sometimes, God lets me suffer through the consequences. Sometimes, it feels like He steps in and shields me. But He’s always there for me, to offer me comfort and support.

Perhaps that’s what I need to focus on. Being there for people when they need help. Not with a checkbook all the time, but with a listening ear and a willingness to help people help themselves out of the jams they’re in. And maybe that’s why I felt so proud of the first article (Look! My religion! Helping others!) and so disappointed with the second, where the people were basically not willing to listen at all. (Though fear will do that to you, I know.)

In any case, this is an issue that I know I need to work on. As Easter approaches, it feels like now’s as good a time as any to think about how we approach these situations and how we can become better at it in the future. And that’s all I have to say about that.

The Benefit of Some Time Off

Hello again! I’m back after a two-week break from blogging and most social media. Miss me? I made the decision to step away from social media and the blog for the holiday break mainly because the blog, while it isn’t too time intensive, is definitely a “Thing to Get Done” each day, and I wanted none of that for a bit. Social media just sort of happened on its own. I was there a bit, but not nearly as much as I usually am.

One thing that occurred to me as I stepped away from it all? How social media can sort of feed itself and make small problems into big problems. Don’t get me wrong: I’m a big proponent of Facebook and Twitter and the like. I use them to stay connected to people I otherwise would never hear from, and I really enjoy seeing what’s going on in the lives of my friends. But more and more, it seems like social media is becoming the main forum for both finding out about news and discussing the news. Finding out about the news is good, I suppose. It helps to be informed. But discussing the news is not always a helpful thing, especially when you get roped into discussions with people you don’t know, or know only vaguely.

Think of it: would you strike up a conversation with Some Guy on a Bus and tell him all about what you think of the future of the country and the presidency? I guess some people would, but I wouldn’t. I don’t have time to care about what random people think about a variety of topics. But at the same time, if someone trots up to my wall and says something about one of my posts, I feel obligated to engage that person in discussion. It’s my wall, so I feel responsible for what goes on there.

I’m rambling a bit here, sorry. I’m not trying to say that I’m not going to debate topics online with people anymore. And I’m still going to patrol my wall to see what goes on there. But I’m going to (try to) remind myself that I’m not going to fix all the world’s ills through Facebook. That there are going to be people who disagree with me, and it’s okay not to care. Even if they’re friends of a friend. If I were at a party, and I overheard a friend’s friend spouting off some useless drivel, I certainly wouldn’t rush over to correct them. I’d shake my head, dismiss them as misguided at best, and go on with my partying.

I want to do more of that online.

But more than the random conversations and debates, social media can bring a group of like-minded people together and whip them into a frenzy about things that don’t matter a whole lot, very easily. Mob mentality can kick in on social media, and it’s something I also want to try to avoid. Again, not that I’m going to stay silent on issues I feel strongly about, but I just noticed that the more I engage in debate, the more the debate begins to affect my personal life. Disconnecting from that debate or distancing myself from it can be a very good thing. Especially since it’s very rare that I’ve seen any of that debate actually, you know, accomplish something.

[Social media is] but a walking shadow, a poor player that struts and frets his hour upon the stage and is heard no more. It is a tale told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, signifying nothing.

That Shakespeare guy was on to something.

Anyway. I’m out of time. More from me tomorrow. In the meantime, happy new year all, and best wishes for 2017!

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