Road to Nowhere

I can’t remember now what set me off, but I was in one of my annoyed, impatient moods, and so we were having a disagreement about something I would usually accept as the status quo.

‘Being a jerk is a shortcut.’

‘No it’s not.’

‘Yes it is.’

‘No, it’s not.’

‘Well, it would be for me.’

It was an effective final word, but I’ve been nagged by it ever since. I meant it at the time and I’m sure I was making a very specific point, but – a shortcut to what? What benefit does one get from being a jerk that isn’t obtainable by, say, not being a jerk?

It’s possible that being a jerk could be a misguided attempt at success and mass respect. We tend to think that if we’re just adamant enough about what (we think) we know, others will come to see us as the geniuses we are. Or we think that slowing down enough to get others’ input or make our colleagues feel appreciated will cost us our chance at winning the rat race. But I don’t think that applied in this case.

No, more likely what I meant was that being a jerk is a coward’s way of communicating. Manage it with enough panache and you can skate, apparently unaffected, out of so many distressing situations. Say something tactless and cause offense? Announce, “But everybody knows I’m a jerk,” and walk away, as if it’s their fault for being too sensitive. Flirt a little too much, give someone the wrong impression and raise hopes you didn’t mean to raise? Instead of the embarrassing but considerate “I’m so sorry; that isn’t what I intended” conversation, just ignore them pointedly! After the initial confusion and hurt, they’ll realize how wrong they were. Clearly, you can’t be held responsible. And while you’re at it, be sure to imply that people who do care about their effect on other people are weak and lacking an individual personality.

What we want is happy, peaceful, drama-free relationships. If you can’t be bothered with other people’s problems, then you can pretend that’s what you have. And it is doubtless easier to “resolve” certain difficult situations by being a jerk. When other people frustrate you, there’s a certain appeal to being so annoying to them that they give up on you. It saves you the hard work of strengthening the relationship and – added bonus! – you get to blame them for leaving you and play the victim.

Yes, I can see how being a jerk could be mistaken for a shortcut. But I suspect if you followed the shortcut long enough, you’d find it was a dead end.

Harry Potter

Recently I have found myself tearing through the Harry Potter books. While there is plenty that could be said about their subject matter, so controversial in certain circles, and their shortcomings in the more technical aspects of literary merit, the thing that has struck me most is the courage and leadership consistently displayed by the hero, young Harry himself.

Harry is a celebrity within his own community – a celebrity in the most trying way and to the most trying degree. Born into the highest social class, as an infant he survived the attack that killed his parents with only a small cut on his forehead. Nobody knows why or how, and speculation runs rampant until, 11 years later, he is brought out of the safe hiding place where he was raised.

He is famous for something that wasn’t his doing, and which he doesn’t remember. People stare at him when they first meet him. Some people court his favor because he’s famous, including a young schoolmate who follows him everywhere and snaps photos at the most inopportune moments. Other people assume he’s stuck-up and trying to increase his fame. In such a situation, it would be all too easy to become rude, surly and withdrawn – or to get a big head. Harry does neither. He behaves with unfeigned modesty and humility, yet does not fear accomplishing good and impressive things, even when those accomplishments will earn him more publicity.

Harry is unfailingly polite to people of all walks of life and in all situations, no matter how much the other person may be inconveniencing him. (The exception is when someone insults or harms a friend, in which case he leaps to his friend’s defense.) An example is Dobby, essentially a slave. When we first meet Dobby, his ill-advised attempts to save Harry’s life cause Harry no end of trouble. Yet Harry treats him with kindness, and at the end of the book, contrives to set Dobby free. Later, when he meets Dobby again, he graciously gives him permission to come and visit him sometime – even though the reader, and Harry, know this is likely to lead to further inconvenience. If, as one character remarks, the measure of a man is how he treats his inferiors, not his equals, Harry is a great man.

Harry’s kindness and loyalty earn him the same in return. The fourth book revolves largely around a tournament between the scholar-champions of three schools, which consists of three extremely difficult tasks. The scholars are supposed to prepare for the tasks without help, but so many people care about Harry that he keeps getting unsolicited assistance. Several times this assistance is crucial to his survival. But his kindness is not limited to those who are his friends. In the second task, he rescues the sister of one of his competitors when the competitor is unable to do so, even though this delays him and costs him points from the judges – turning the competitor from an antagonist to another friend and supporter.

But Harry is not seeking an unfair advantage; he has an acute sense of fair play. When someone shows Harry what the first task will be and Harry realizes that the champions for the two other schools also have this information, he takes it upon himself to tell the one champion, Cedric, who doesn’t know. When asked why he would do such a thing, he says, “Well, it’s just fair, isn’t it?”

In the end, Harry’s concern for others makes them believe in him in return. Cedric, who initially views Harry with suspicion, ends up helping him with the second task. In the final task, Harry saves Cedric from danger twice – even though this decreases Harry’s chance of winning. In fact, this assistance allows Cedric to reach the finish line ahead of Harry. But instead of taking the trophy, Cedric lists the reasons why Harry should be the winner, and refuses to finish the task. Harry protests, and, finally, when neither will budge, suggests they finish together and tie for first place.

The tournament, and Harry’s approach as well, is summed up in a speech by Dumbledore, the headmaster of the school, who exemplifies wise leadership. One quote in particular stands out: “We are only as strong as we are united, as weak as we are divided… We can fight [discord and enmity] only by showing an equally strong bond of friendship and trust. Differences of habit and language are nothing at all if our aims are identical and our hearts are open.”

One Stranger at a Time

Traveling often makes me think about the images we project. In a new city, nobody knows you, so you can be anybody you want. Blank slates mostly terrify us, but in small doses, they can be liberating. Blank slates, like new beginnings, often create growth. Because, when you can be anybody, why be a shy mouse?

Yes, I’m here to tell you that strangers are the secret to overcoming shyness.

What’s harder to overcome than shyness? Inertia. What’s more difficult to change than that bad habit you’ve been resolving about each of the past three New Years? Other people’s pre-conceived notions and dearly-held opinions about how things are and what box you fit in.

Say you go to the same coffee-shop every day and buy the same cup of coffee from the same 2 or 3 baristas. You’re shy, so you keep it all business – maybe a please and thank you, but no other words that aren’t absolutely neccessary. Over time, you come to envy the light banter some of the other patrons have with the barista, but how do you start? You’re so entrenched in the pattern of not speaking that you don’t even know what you would say. And what if, in your nervousness, you make a mess of it and now the barista thinks you’re weird?

What’s scarier than the monster under the bed? The fear of doing something wrong or messing up in front of the people you have to see every day.

But say you go to another city on a business trip and stop into a new coffee-shop in the morning. This barista doesn’t know that you never say “good morning” to your barista at home. For all this new barista knows about you, you might be the friendliest, happiest, most confident person she’s ever met. It’d be a shame to disappoint her, don’t you think?

So you smile, say good morning. Maybe even comment on the weather. Odds are, this interaction goes perfectly. But even if it doesn’t, it doesn’t matter, because she doesn’t know who you are, and she’ll never see you again. No risk, lots of reward. Nice. So you do the same thing with the waiter at lunch and the cab driver on the way back to the airport.

And when you get home you realize there are plenty of people in your own city you’ll only see once. The man with his dog you passed three streets over on your evening walk. The woman waiting next to you at jury duty. You’re the nicest, friendliest person they’ve ever met, right? So it’s no big deal to make a little light small talk about what a beautiful dog he has or to say you’ve heard good things about that book.

And it gets easier and easier the more you do it and before you know it, it’s not such a big deal to approach people you should have known all along or wish you knew better.

Because you don’t have to start off with a deep conversation that makes up for all those years of shyness and distance. You can start with a few small moments over time that make the other person want to talk to you, so that they share the work of building the bond.

Because, now that you don’t need to hide in the crowd, you can join the table where just one or two other people are sitting alone. Their gratitude allows you to have a much more rewarding conversation than if you joined a discussion already in full swing, with no room for you, and more and more people will be drawn to the group you started. (Seriously, this is the single greatest trick I’ve learned about dealing with those situations where you don’t know anybody in the room.)

Most shy people – and I say this as a formerly-painfully-and-still-occasionally-slightly shy person – go about dealing with their shyness in exactly the wrong way. They hide in the familiar, among the people who only know them as a shy person, and it reinforces their fear.

The worst thing that can happen to a shy person is to have a confident companion to hide behind. The real way to get over shyness is to go find a stranger to talk to, because really, a stranger is a shy person’s best friend.