When you meet someone who’s been told they don’t matter, give them a chance to matter

I’ve been thinking about this post from Richard Beck since he posted it on Friday.

Beck is a professor of psychology, and he starts off with an unremarkable psychological observation: “We all want to matter. To be the focus of respect, esteem and interest.”

True enough, but not exactly revelatory. But Beck, as he often does, explores what this means and teases out pastoral and prophetic implications.

He doesn’t use those words — “pastoral” and “prophetic.” That’s seminary-speak for the same idea conveyed in the unofficial motto of journalists, preachers and stand-up comedians: Comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable. The former is what we mean by pastoral. The latter is prophetic. Richard Beck’s discussion of “Mattering” pulls off the tricky feat of doing both at the same time. I think this is a significant post about significance, an important post about importance, etc.

Let’s consider the pastoral side first, because Beck starts there:

What if it is hard to matter? What if you have nothing in your life that commends you to others? What if you aren’t successful, don’t have a job, don’t have kids, or a spouse, or money for the Instragram-worthy vacation?

How do you matter when you have to take a bus, have your electricity turned off, or need to ask others for food?

Well, you find other ways to matter.

Beck describes a couple of men like that who attend his church. They’re lonely and powerless and seeking a sense of significance in a world that regards people like them as insignificant. One has become a “confabulator,” using tall tales to find a sense of importance. The other seems to be perpetually injured. Beck says of these Eleanor Rigbies:

Though his stories don’t jibe with reality, you listen attentively and express interest and concern. Because he wants to matter.


When you see him you inquire about his most recent injury. And he tells you the story of the accident. And you listen because this is how he matters.

Note the use of the second person in those sentences. I’m sure students of rhetoric and grammar have a name for that, but I don’t know what it is — something like “second-person normative” maybe. That’s another little trick used by both preachers and comics. And mothers. It’s sort of aspirationally presumptuous — a way of sneaking in an “ought” without triggering our defenses against moralistic language. Whether or not it is an accurate description of what “you” actually do when encountering such people, it challenges us to make it accurate, to be or to become the kind of “you” for whom it is accurate.

To be honest, in my case, it’s not always accurate. I often look for any chance I can find to escape from people like those Beck describes, to avoid having to listen to their stories, which tend to be frustratingly long and time-consuming, and I haven’t got a lot of time to spare. I have other things I have to do — important things, things that matter, and …


Beck’s next example hit even closer to home for me:

Occasionally I drive a van for our church Freedom Fellowship on Wednesday. Driving that route has taught me that sometimes we matter because of what we know. And even the smallest, thinnest epistemological edge can give you this sense of mattering. At the start, being new to the route the regular passengers knew the locations and best routes to get everyone that needed to be picked up. The first few times I drove I needed help about where to go next. People helped me and it made them feel like they mattered. They knew something that I didn’t. Their knowledge allowed them to help me, placed them in a superior position.

But as I’ve driven more and more, I need directions less and less. But still the directions come. I know I need to turn left, they know I know that I need to turn left, but I’m still told to turn left. Why? Because telling me how to go helps them matter. And they are going to hold on to that mattering for as long as possible. And I’m not going to rush them. Sometimes I ask for directions when I don’t need them.

I know this situation. I’ve been there — precisely. The very same thing happened to me this morning, driving my co-worker home from the night-shift at the big-box warehouse-store. And it will happen again tomorrow morning. I know where he lives and how to get there from the store, but every time he gives me directions.

The person in this picture is very important.

That was really starting to bug me, until I noticed that it was really starting to bug me.

I noticed, specifically, that I found it disproportionately irritating in the same way that it’s so easy to be irked or rankled or infuriated by the perpetual advice given us by the various managers and assistant managers and department managers at the store. Annoyance with this advice is a perennial topic of conversation among the crew at lunch breaks and coffee breaks. It took about a month on the job before I figured out why.

See, what we do there is we re-stock shelves. We take pallets of merchandise off of trucks and break them down and sort them and then, with cages, carts and pallet-jacks, we haul them to the various parts of the sprawling store where we slice open boxes and ensure that the shelves are filled with their bounty of offerings the following morning. It’s not complicated — all of the merchandise and all of the shelves are coded, and matching those codes isn’t particularly tricky. It may be a kind of menial drudge work, but like all such work it can be done with care, and the guys in the crew are good at it. They do it fast and they do it well. They’ve been at this a long time and they know what they’re doing.

And I think that is why all that unbidden, unnecessary advice from the various managers gets under their skin. It’s an implicit suggestion that they don’t know what they’re doing. It’s a kind of refusal to give them the respect they’ve earned as people who know what they’re doing.

That bugs the guys on the crew. It bugged me, too, enough to make me start trying to figure out exactly how and why. And once I started exploring that, I came to see that all those manager-types were wrestling with the same thing. They, too, were just struggling to find some source of respect or of self-respect in a job that doesn’t offer as many sources of that as we all might like or want or need.

In Richard Beck’s terms, “We all want to matter.” We all require some sense of “respect, esteem and interest.” Once I realized that cheerfully accepting the superfluous instructions or inaccurate advice of one of those various bosses was an opportunity to allow them that, I was able to take the focus off myself — and thus off of my reflexive resentment over being denied even that slight source of mattering. I began, instead, repeating the mantra: This is water. This is water.

That’s from David Foster Wallace’s 2005 commencement speech at Kenyon College. Please read the whole thing, but here’s the core of it:

The really important kind of freedom involves attention and awareness and discipline, and being able truly to care about other people and to sacrifice for them over and over in myriad petty, unsexy ways every day.

That is real freedom. That is being educated, and understanding how to think. The alternative is unconsciousness, the default setting, the rat race, the constant gnawing sense of having had, and lost, some infinite thing.

When you meet someone who maybe feels like they don’t matter — or who has been told they don’t matter, or who has been assigned a lot in life that the world says doesn’t matter — you have the chance to choose consciousness over unconsciousness. You have the chance to regain a piece of some infinite thing.

You have a chance, in other words, to show that person that they do matter — to reassure them that they are deserving of respect, esteem and interest. Even if you don’t need directions, sometimes you should ask for them because the other person needs to give them.

That’s a way of comforting the afflicted. That’s a kind of pastoral ministry.

But this matter of mattering also has prophetic implications. Richard Beck discusses those as well, and so will we here, but let me save that for a part 2 and a follow-up because right now I’ve gotta go. Those shelves won’t re-stock themselves you know.


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  • AnonaMiss

    I disagree. It was a reflexive intuitive backlash that I felt as I read this, so I haven’t thought it through; please pardon if it falls apart upon further scrutiny, and please point out to me if it does.

    My intuition is that the desire to matter is a moral urge, an ethical urge. The desire to matter is a part of our psychological makeup as social creatures. And like other moral urges, we get to a point where we feel important enough, and we stop trying to matter. False sources of mattering are therefore like false charities: people give until they reach a certain threshhold of feeling, and then they stop, and if it turns out that the amount they gave was significantly less than the amount they spent – their sense of helpfulness is based on how much they gave, not how much those in need of help received.

    Do I matter? to me seems like a direct analogue of am I a good person?, and often the two are intertwined. They are questions we should ask ourselves intently, with criticism. Helping someone feel like they matter when they’ve done nothing that actually matters, would then be like helping someone feel like they’re a good person when they’ve done nothing that’s actually good. It is an opiate.

    Got to go, hope I conveyed myself well.

  • caryjamesbond

    I’ve worked a lot of drudge jobs in my day. But I’ve got two degrees, a nice sit down job, now, some connections, and I’m only 25. By the time I’m 45, I’ll probably have a family, money in the bank, some power, some community respect.

    In other words, I will, someday, in a real, tangible way, matter. I might be on the PTA, or a state senator, or even higher than that because I’ve got that education and connections and so on.

    But the people I worked with? The people I stocked shelves with? They probably aren’t able to rise that high. Some might- but eight hours and more on your feet working strange shifts (like overnight) will drain you white without you even noticing.

    To some of the people I’ve worked with, who only have high school educations or less, who are older, more tired, unable to go back to school, all that stuff- well, stocking shelves at 2AM is where they’re probably gonna be. The most impact they’ll have is a vote when they remember. They won’t have the array of privileges that I do.

    And so, yes, maybe just making them feel useful, feel like they matter is an opiate. But….so what? It makes them happier. it makes someone else’s hard road a little softer. Introspection and self-analysis is, in many ways, a privilege- the privilege of sitting on your arse asking tricky philosophical questions instead of questions like “How many hours at 9 bucks an hour (minus taxes, minus fica, minus that cheating clock) do I have to work in the next three weeks to make rent AND groceries AND the cable bill AND the car payment?”

    Yes, you’re right- that question should be asked, but we should focus on asking it of the people who need to be asked: usually the rich, the powerful, the wheelers and the dealers.

    Or, like Fred said- comfort the afflicted, and afflict the comfortable- even when that’s us.

  • SisterCoyote

    With all due respect, Cary, I take some issue with the implication that what it takes to “matter” is a position of authority, social status, or economic standing. I think – even in the way Fred is putting it – to ‘matter’ is more a means of character, or occasionally charisma. My dad is a maintenance man. He’ll almost certainly never be on the PTA (all his kids have graduated, or will in a year, and who the hell has time?), or a state senator, or any higher than that. But he’s damn good at fixing things, and making sure they stay fixed, and the staff at the facility where he works know that. He matters in that way, and he matters to his kids and his friends and his family. My stepmom’s brother-in-law may be an excellent attorney, but he can’t build and fix things the way my dad can – and so my dad and step-mom will cheerfully drive up-state to help him varnish the deck or paint the living room. And that matters. It’s not a pity-toss from the relative to make him “feel” like he matters because of his socio-economic standing.

    And so, yes, maybe just making them feel useful, feel like they matter is an opiate.

    And this, this actually makes me angry. Please reread it, from the point of view of someone who’s worked minimum-wage jobs up to now, worked minimum-wage jobs ladling soup to get themselves through community college, and someone who comes from a long, long line of blue-collar family.

    Privilege makes your road easier, but it sure as hell does not make you better.

  • caryjamesbond

    Please reread it, from the point of view of someone who’s worked minimum-wage jobs up to now, worked minimum-wage jobs ladling soup to get themselves through community college, and someone who comes from a long, long line of blue-collar family.

    So have I. All those things are true of me as well. That was in response to AnonaMiss’s line, that simply telling people they matter is a sort of opiate. Some people are always gonna be shelf-stockers. That doesn’t mean they shouldn’t feel like they matter AND (which I forgot to say, thanks for correcting me) it doesn’t mean they DON’T matter. They simply don’t feel as if they do.

    With all due respect, Cary, I take some issue with the implication that what it takes to “matter” is a position of authority, social status, or economic standing.

    Yes. That was the entire point of Fred’s piece, and what I was, perhaps poorly, trying to get at, was that AnonaMiss was wrong when she said Helping someone feel like they matter when they’ve done nothing that actually matters, would then be like helping someone feel like they’re a good person when they’ve done nothing that’s actually good. is a flawed statement.

    Everyone MATTERS. Everyone is important. However, there are certain social standards of “mattering” that disenfranchise the shelf-stockers.

    And I’d also point out that your handman father “matters” socially in a way that a shelf-stocker does not. Your father has a certain set of skills that he has developed over a long career. He is skilled labor. Shelf-stocking, though, is the exact opposite. There is none of the reward of being able to do something challenging, or even do something rewarding. It’s just….work. Nothing else.

    From the robber baron point of view, a career shelf-stocker has done nothing that matters. But even if thats all they’ve done, even if they don’t have a family to love and value, they’re still people, and they still have value. But because of the way shelf-stocking is viewed, they often feel as if they don’t. So what Fred is saying is, yeah, make ’em feel like they matter.

    And what I was trying to say is that asking “DO I matter? Have I made a DIFFERENCE!?!” is asking another sort of question entirely, and that question is one you need to be privileged to even ask. For a 7.50 an hour shelf-stocker, making a difference is saving a little extra money for a nice birthday present for the kids. For the privileged, making a difference is building a school in Africa or some other large scale project.

    To want the shelf-stocker to ask the same questions in the same way as the privileged wealthy person is, it seems to me-cruel. The shelf-stocker won’t build a school, but they’ll be happy, healthy, productive people that love their families and do a good job. If, on the other hand, the rich person never does anything else besides work and make money and love their families, they would NOT matter- because they have the ability for more.

    Hope that made more sense.

  • SisterCoyote

    Fair point; it does make more sense read that way, and I would agree with you on most of the above. I do still have some disagreements with your position, though.

    And what I was trying to say is that asking “DO I matter? Have I made a
    DIFFERENCE!?!” is asking another sort of question entirely, and that
    question is one you need to be privileged to even ask.

    I don’t think you need to be privileged to ask that question, though. Yes, people with economic privilege are going to be able to “do more” that matters to causes they consider important. But that doesn’t mean that people without that economic privilege aren’t asking themselves the same questions, or holding themselves to standards. Shelf-stockers can still take their day off to volunteer for a Big Sibling sort of program, or prepare food at the local park, or whatever. And just because it doesn’t take a great deal of economic push to do so does not make it less important – just because it’s in a local impoverished community, rather than overseas, does not make it less important. Maybe I need to reread Fred’s post, and maybe this is just me being oversensitive, but there’s a part of me that is reading “The shelf-stocker” in your posts as patronizing, and it is raising my hackles.

    I think you and Fred are both saying something that I do agree with – no matter what society says, doing drudge-work, stuff that requires, or seems to require, minimal skill, does not mean one does not matter. It’s just that after a lifetime, or even a few years, of doing minimum-wage jobs, one really starts to feel like they don’t matter. But I disagree that making someone feel like they matter is an opiate – there’s just something in that sentiment that itches, and I cannot put my finger on it. Let me think this over and get back to you when I am not likely to lash out and miscommunicate.

  • caryjamesbond

    But I disagree that making someone feel like they matter is an opiate – there’s just something in that sentiment that itches, and I cannot put my finger on it.

    I completely, entirely, 100% agree with this. My original use of that word was in response to Anonamiss uses of the word. I intended to be read as sort of a “EVEN IF IT WERE…..so what?” in much the same way I might say “well, even if being gay WAS a choice…so what?” not that I agree with the sentiment, but saying that even if I concede your point, it doesn’t make a difference to the final point at hand.

    And I’m dashing these off in between other things, so I apologize both for the length, and anything that comes off as patronizing.

  • SisterCoyote

    Cool cool – and no worries, thank you for taking the time to reply. I think we understand each other now, and ’tis much appreciated.

  • http://apocalypsereview.wordpress.com/ Invisible Neutrino

    That said, the people who are often low on the totem pole are usually told in a hundred ways by society (most of all by their paycheck in a society which implicitly equates lots of money with the imprimatur of goodness or rightness) that they don’t matter to the movers and shakers who decide all the ways in which the average person can be legally shaken down and fleeced of the money they could use to make their lives better.

  • dpolicar

    My $0.02: “do I matter?” is a question like “am I attractive?” or “is this painting worth a thousand dollars?” or “does eggplant taste good?” That is, it’s only half a question.

    The other half of it is “to whom?”

    Trying to talk about what matters when we don’t agree about “to whom?” is just asking to get confused.

  • Lorehead

    Here? To anyone, most specifically you.

    I’ve known my share of confabulators, and yes, I admit, they’re really very annoying and I avoid them. But one of the most unpleasant experiences you can have is for a relative to decide to make you the villain of his or her life.

  • dpolicar

    To anyone, most specifically you.

    Let me make sure I’ve unpacked this correctly before I go further: the question you’re asking is whether you matter to me?

  • Lorehead

    Whether the next person we speak to matters to each of us reading this, I think.

  • dpolicar

    Ah, I see. OK, thanks for clarifying.

    I don’t think “does X matter?” is consistently being used on this thread as a shorthand for “does X matter to me?” but that certainly does seem like a reasonable and important question to ask.

  • AnonaMiss

    I think we have different definitions of ‘matter’.

    In my estimation, most things that one can do which make one good are also things that make one matter. Kindness, and emotional support of others, and taking small steps to right small injustices.

    In the case of the stocking supervisors in this example, there is a great way for them to matter: by being the best supervisors they can be, supporting their supervisees however they can, as people. A good supervisor can make all the difference in the world to their supervisees.

    If they’re already good supervisors, great. Make them feel like they matter for this reason, not because they give shitty and unnecessary advice.

    If they’re not good supervisors, don’t balm their feelings of mattering/importance with false ‘asking of directions’ to make them feel important. If they really want to matter, they can do so by becoming kinder, better, more effective supervisors.

    I wed this whole mattering idea back to Fred’s occasionally-repeated refrain of Aquinas(?) and the need that whatever you do, you do it well.

  • SisterCoyote

    I understand what you’re saying, but I do disagree. I don’t think “Do I matter” is a direct analogue of “Am I a good person,” but a question more along the lines of “Am I useful?” Which is an entirely different ball of wax.

  • Space Marine Becka

    I think “do I matter?” is more an analogue of “is my existence valid?” and “am I human?” than “am I a good person?”

    If we need to do things that matter to have a valid existence then heaven help the human race.

  • Baby_Raptor

    As someone who has low self-esteem, and has been told that I “visibly perk” when given a genuine compliment or made to feel important…I resent your implication that those feelings are just opiates; fake little highs that don’t actually tell the truth.

    I’m not saying we should go out and lovebomb truly horrible people just because everyone has off days or weak points in their self-confidence, but think about this: What doesn’t matter to you might mean the world to someone else. Or not even the world, but just matter enough that it makes their day. Would it really inconvenience you to smile at someone, or to voice that compliment you thought?

    And yes, I understand that other peoples’ self-confidence issues aren’t your obligation. I’m not trying to make them such. But I can’t really see any negatives to making the people you encounter in your day to day life a little happier. If they go on to pay it forward, that’s a lot more happiness that the world didn’t have in it an hour ago, and that can only be a plus.

  • AnonaMiss


    I have self-esteem problems too and a compliment can make me hide in the bathroom and do a little happy dance

    The difference is between letting someone know when they are mattering at something they are genuinely mattering at, and asking someone for directions that you don’t need to make them feel like they matter in a completely inconsequential and ultimately false way.

    I am all for letting people know they matter when they matter to you, no matter how inconsequential it may seem in the grand scheme of things. But Fred seems to be talking about making people feel like they matter over actively annoying behaviors, and/or in situations where the behavior you’re signaling they matter for is completely redundant. That’s completely different from a genuine compliment.

  • dpolicar

    For what it’s worth, there are people for whom I do what Fred describes. I generally refer to it as humoring them.

    This is not typically a deceptive expression that they matter because of their annoying behavior.

    Rather, it is an honest expression of the fact that those people matter to me, and as a consequence of that, I humor their annoying behaviors. If the people didn’t matter to me, I wouldn’t humor them.

    I have no idea whether that’s a compliment or not.

  • Hexep

    I am behind AnonaMiss 100% on this one, and I think the best possible answer to your question, B_R, can be found here:


    I don’t want to make this a game about moral authority, but like many others here, I deal with low self-esteem as well. But the one thing that always gets me through is the fact that what I have, however scanty or meagre it may be, is nevertheless mine. My accomplishments may be small – they may even be miniscule, and probably totally inconsequential to anybody except me – but the fact remains that I have them, and I can take pride in them.

    If you’ve overcome adversity, own that shit. The fact that you are composing an eloquent message like this suggests that you’re far more literate than many people in the English-speaking world, and that’s something you had to work at.

    It may seem small – it certainly doesn’t make a difference to my life, sho’nuff – but the fact remains that you had two paths before you, and you took the harder one. Is that not enough? Go find something else to get good at. Doesn’t matter what it is; go get good at checkers or League of Legends or origami or something.

    Own that shit! Don’t let people butter you up with lies when you have genuine truth. As ugly as truth may be, it’s solid, and that solidity makes all the difference in the world.

  • Baby_Raptor

    Tangental to the point of your post, but…That story has some major issues for me. The idea that God would purposely create people with massive, life-altering physical problems just to teach other people to behave nicer? That’s disturbing.

    That aside, I have no issues with what the kids did. The conflict here seems to be what actions are inconsequential and which ones actually carries weight. I feel like, outside of major situations, that’s going to vary from person to person.

    I’m with you on owning your own strengths and positives. It’s just easier for me personally to do when other people reinforce that those good things are there, if that makes sense.

  • EllieMurasaki

    The idea that God would purposely create people with massive, life-altering physical problems just to teach other people to behave nicer? That’s disturbing.

    To me it’s less ‘disturbing’, more ‘evidence of the storyteller not having realized that people with disabilities are people just as much as temporarily able-bodied people are’. Which is a bit too common a phenomenon to disturb me.

  • Hexep

    That’s the idea. The story is supposed to be awful.

    Reinforcing one’s genuine accomplishments is good, but reinforcing fake ones… less so.

  • Baby_Raptor

    Okay. I was unsure if that was the point, because of the “Pastor telling it” factor.

  • Persia

    Yeah. I think my biggest issue with the discussion here is it seems to be an either/or proposition. Sometimes it’s important to reward someone for something they’ve actually done. Sometimes it’s okay to ‘miss the catch’ and let the kid get his grand slam. Those boys (if they existed) decided to be kind. That’s awesome. If that was what people did for that kid every day, it wouldn’t be so great, but what are the odds of that happening?

  • Hexep

    I can’t speak for anyone else, but if I had behaviors that annoyed people – needless giving of directions and the like – and people just put up with them because they were afraid of breaking my heart if they told me to knock it off…

    That is a more vile insult than I can articulate. I mean, I do have behaviors that annoy people – like the example, I am a hopeless confabulator, always telling tall tales. The difference is that I don’t approach it as a charity to be received from others. If they don’t like my tall tales, they call me out, and I stop doing it or start working on a better one. I do it as part of my self-actualization and use the approval or credibility of others to see if I have done a good job at it.

    If I thought that people were nodding and smiling at my worst stories – if I thought that they were patronizing me – then I could not be friends with them. I will never let myself be someone who needs things sugar-coated, not for any reason.

    It may seem bizarre for an admitted confabulator to say this, but the best way to respect anyone is by telling them the truth.

  • caryjamesbond


    I feel exactly the opposite.

    Like- I have a big laugh. not a braying laugh, or a cackle- just a big, loud, deep belly laugh. And people have called me out on it because, for whatever reason, it bothered them.

    And frankly, it hurt. Because, well, I’ve a good friend, a good co-worker- I take care of the people in my life. And you can’t suck it up and deal with the way I LAUGH? I’m sorry that it isn’t exactly to your taste, but frankly, suck it up, deal, move on with your life, because you’ve got plenty of irritating shit going on yourself, you sanctimonious little shit, and I deal with it every goddamned day….

    *Deep breath* wow, apparently that was a deeper wound than I thought….

    I’m big on letting the little things slide, especially little personal habits that may not be my favorite thing. If your confabulations (love that word) bugged me, well….I’d move on. Not because “oh, poor soul, that’s all s/he has” but because “yeah, Hexep’s stories get to be a bit much sometimes, but s/he likes telling them, and hey s/he puts up with my laugh and tendency to tell bad puns, so I can take one for the team to make them happier.”

  • Charby

    I think I agree with you too. Honestly, I don’t think I would have the energy to challenge everyone who had a habit or a tic that I didn’t adore. I mean, I wouldn’t want someone to think that they had to remold themselves to please me in order to my friend, any more that I would want to be friends with someone who dictates that I stop laughing or playing with my hair or wearing mismatched socks because they just plain don’t like it, dammit. For me, there are too many real things I could be doing with my life and if I pushed away or shunned anyone who wasn’t perfect I would have to do them all alone.

  • Hexep

    I had typed out a long, strident, incoherent response, but then my browser crashed over Grooveshark so I lost it. But I will not compose a level-headed summary of the same.

    I think we’re discussing different things. It’s not a question of politely ignoring things that other people can’t help. I’m on-board with that; you have your laugh, some people have BO, I have my irascible head-dandruff and walk with a limp. For the sake of social lubrication, we pretend we don’t see (and, with sufficient practice, actually stop seeing) those things about people that are (metaphorically or literally) odious. I’m on board with that.

    But there’s a marked and significant difference between ‘you’re fine as you are, warts and all,’ and actually pretending that someone is more useful than they are. There’s a difference, I think, between pretending something isn’t there, and pretending that something is there. That’s the crux of the matter, to me.

  • http://apocalypsereview.wordpress.com/ Invisible Neutrino

    There are a lot of things you’ve probably ignored in other people for the sake of minimizing social friction or personal friction.

    Here’s a not-too-fine-a-point-example:

    A guy I used to work with had some noticeable B.O. that smelled kind of metallic. And I know he showered and shaved and did all the stuff you’re supposed to do to stay clean. But it was there, and it was kind of distracting, so I usually tried to find ways to not be near him if I could help it.

    Now, sure, if someone had gotten him aside and mentioned it, I bet there’s a medical condition he had that should’ve been treated, but it was just easier socially to put up with it than embarrass the ever-loving hell out of him.

  • Hexep

    I stink, too. In a land of smooth, hairless, golden-skinned little men, I am a furred Slav. Even the slightest musk is noticeable to them, reminding them no doubt of the disastrous 1860 Treaty of Beijing.

    I see this as a question, ultimately, of face. Ignoring what is odious about others – literally or metaphorically – gives them face. Pretending that one of their qualities is better than it actually is ultimately calls attention to it, which – if their quality in question is so weak that you have to pretend it’s better – will ultimately take it from them.

  • AnonaMiss

    I feel similarly Nexer. I would much rather be embarrassed that everyone hated it when I did X or Y, than continue to do X or Y when everyone hated it.

    I have a bit of a complex about being ‘in the way’, both physically and metaphorically. Once you know you’re in the way, it’s easy to get out; but often people just deal with it and route around you, and by nature I’m oblivious as all hell, so to avoid being in the way I have to go out of my way to constantly monitor myself to see if I’m in the way. I hate being in the way. I want to stop being in the way. So I love being around people who will tell me I’m bothering them – because that means when they’re not telling me I’m bothering them, I can safely assume I’m not bothering them. That means I can relax and pay attention to things besides my own neuroses.

    (I suspect I have avoidant personality disorder, but I do not meet some diagnostic criteria due to the existence of the internet. It makes the development of friendships a lot less stressful; and once you have successful friendships to reassure yourself with, rejection in irl interactions is a lot less scary.)

    Also I have used the phrase “in the way” so much in this post that it has ceased to have any meaning.

  • Hexep

    I like you instantly because you understand my name. High-five for Mongolian Cyrillic!

    But no, you’re right. Either you’re a person who can handle criticism, or you aren’t; and the world will never really be open to you if you aren’t.

  • AnonaMiss


    In fairness you’ve said it was intended to be Cyrillic before, which is how I came to read it as Cyrillic which is how I came to accidentally romanize it when talking about you. I have no idea what it actually means, I just took Russian in high school.

    I disagree that you’re a person who can handle or you aren’t – I think handling criticism is a learned skill, with a learning curve similar to the development of a taste. If you’ve never had criticism before and your first taste of it is very strong, it can be enough to turn you off it for life; but if it’s a constant presence in your ‘diet’, you’ll be put off by its absence. (But still able to be overwhelmed if there’s too much of it.)

  • ohiolibrarian

    I’m having a problem with everyone here. Fred does seem to imply that
    listening with interest to something uninteresting and giving a person
    the impression that something they do matters when it doesn’t is a good
    thing. It seems counter productive to me. And condescending.

    For CaryJamesBond, there seems to be the assumption that manual labor cannot be meaningful. In my experience even tedious repetitive labor can be done with care and by connecting your job with some larger purpose, it can be meaningful.

  • caryjamesbond

    That is an interesting point, but, frankly, I’d disagree. And I’d be grateful if you didn’t assume what I think about manual labor- I grew up on a farm pitching haybales for whatever my uncles would pay me, I’ve carried shingles up a ladder for ten bucks an hour, I’ve made sandwiches and run a register and swept floors. The technical writing job I have now is the first white collar job I’ve ever held in my life. Some of those manual labor jobs were meaningful, some weren’t.

    I always managed to find some personal respectability in them, because I believe in doing my job well. you cannot create meaning, but you can do it in a meaningful way. I believe that everything can be done with art and care. You can always find INTERNAL pride in yourself. But that pride is despite the job, not because of it. It’s where, and how, and why you work that gives your work EXTERNAL meaning.

    I was a fast, efficient cashier and proud of it But that meaning- the self respect of doing your job well and professionally- was something I drew from inside myself, not something inherent in the work itself. I would’ve felt the exact same way about stocking shelves or inputting data.

  • Space Marine Becka

    Cashier as in you worked on a checkout?

    A fast, efficient cashier gets people through the till more quickly which soothes and eases their day giving them a little less stress. In our modern stress filled world that means a great deal.

    Sometimes the little things matter more than you think.

  • themunck

    QFT. Few things are as annoying as a slow-moving line in the supermarket, especially when you’re not exactly buying a week’s worth of supplies yourself. Long line = Annoyed themunck, at least for a while afterwards. Annoyed themunck = more likely to snap at people. Which in turn annoys them, and just makes everyone else’s day that little bit worse.
    Being a good cashier makes everyone’s day that little bit smoother, and that changes how we treat others. In short? It matters.

  • Sue White

    I hope my working at the store occasionally made someone’s day a little bit better. Sometimes I would get customers who were cranky or impatient, but what can you expect – it’s a drug store, people aren’t always feeling their best when they come in. Or they have a sick kid waiting for them at home. Heck, one customer was downright abusive. Then she complained that she was in pain and just wanted to sit down. Ouch! I felt so bad she had to wait so long.

  • http://apocalypsereview.wordpress.com/ Invisible Neutrino

    I made 17 bucks an hour doing manual labor at one point. You couldn’t pay me a million bucks an hour to do it today. Period.

  • Darakou

    Cool, I used to work the same job as Fred. That is until I recently got a job as a blackjack dealer. My problem now is, I still feel like I need to do better, career wise. I was studying at university until that all fell apart last year. I wasn’t enjoying myself there, but now I have a job I enjoy, and I’m good at it. But I still feel like I need to do better. Maybe I could get promoted at work, but I just don’t feel it’s a career. When I was at university I felt like I was going to get a big high paying job, I was going to be someone. I could salvage my studies and get into an engineering degree, try to earn the big money. But a lot of my studies drove me mad. What good is having the money when you hate your job?

  • SisterCoyote

    Maybe I’m just seeing this in a different light, but I don’t see Fred’s initial post as an advocacy of patronizing people. And I am… just a wee bit sensitive of the classism/patronization that seems to crop up with assuming that because someone has a job that doesn’t require or reward much, a menial drudgery, that their life is unfulfilling*. …**

    Even if you don’t need directions, sometimes you should ask for them because the other person needs to give them.

    I think that’s what it comes down to. That’s sorta the crux, as with most things – having empathy. Listening, nodding, bloody well caring about those around you, not just nodding and smiling emptily while internally pounding the walls. I… still don’t know if I agree with absolutely everything that Fred or Cary is saying, or the implications thereof, but the basis of the argument is, I think, a very sound one.

    *Wait, so ‘patronization’ is a word, but ‘unfulfilling’ isn’t? What the hell, spellcheck?

    **There must be a Correct Way to do footnotes at the end of a sentence. There’s no way the AP Style guide doesn’t have an answer for this. But since I’m currently trusting to grammatical intuition and some brief newspaper experience to pass a copy-editing class, maybe one of y’all*** knows the answer?

    ***…it’s a stylistic choice. Those must be allowed in comment threads.

  • http://apocalypsereview.wordpress.com/ Invisible Neutrino

    I usually just put the footnote before the period. That said I’ve seen books put the footnote after the period.

  • SisterCoyote

    Heh. Thanks – I guess it depends on the way the author (or their editor) was taught how to write, but either way always bothers me, for some reason. There’s something that feels neat about the word ending right at the period, and inserting an asterisk means there’s a space at period-level between the dot and the letter that just feels wrong, but putting the asterisk after the period also feels wrong, in that there is now an unnatural space between the last letter and the asterisk…

  • Jamoche

    If footnotes can’t be superscripted, I do them like this(*).

    (*) I probably picked this up on Usenet, which predates any form of text markup.

  • SisterCoyote

    Oh hey, that makes a lot of sense, too. Shiny! Thanks.

  • Cowboy Diva

    The first time someone has to demand, “Respect my authority!” then they receive absolutely no respect. Also, too, I am realizing our culture has many phrases to describe unrequested advice, such as micromanaging, or kibitzing, or second-guessing, or backseat-driving. At what point can we support each other by recognizing that in our own desire to give direction (advice, opinion) there is a not-so-subtle declaration “I matter because what I say/do/feel matters! You need to listen to me so that I know I matter!” and we can therefore understand that everyone else feels the exact same way?

  • smrnda

    I talk with lots of people who stock shelves, work at checkout lanes, factories, fast food, call centers and all sorts of other low status jobs. I don’t really know that many of them who seem to care if they *matter* in any sort of status or attention kind of way. They just want to live a life that doesn’t suck as much as it presently sucks. They already matter, to themselves, their families, their friends, they just don’t matter to all the important people, and they want people to quit pissing and shitting on them.

    I just worry that there are few ways that I can imagine ‘making someone feel like they matter’ won’t cause them to feel patronized. I once went to a church and the pastor talked about how, if he noticed a cashier ‘looked like she was having a bad day’ he’d try to say something funny, and I thought, you patronizing asshole. I mean, a cashier is a person. If she’s having a bad day, it’s probably because of a real reason, and a few corny jokes from people in line aren’t going to make any difference. I’m also conscious of myself as a privileged person and in a lot of cases, complimenting someone on the job they do can be a bad move. If someone told me ‘the software you write is amazing’ yeah, that’s okay, because I don’t really mind doing it. Telling someone ‘you do a great job scrubbing the toilets’ *might* work, but there’s a chance you’re talking to someone who just wants to find a job that isn’t scrubbing toilets.

    Perhaps I’m also influenced by the fact that I think, for what people get paid and how they get treated, most people doing low-paying or low-status work are entitled to do their jobs poorly, be rude to customers and not care, and that there should be some sort of overall revolt.

  • SisterCoyote

    I dunno, as someone who’s had long, long days as a cashier, a corny joke might not help, but a genuine moment of camaraderie does, even just a sincere smile and a “Hey, just an hour left, right?” Those matter – they do sort of telegraph “I am noticing that you are human, and not a serving-robot who makes change.” Which is sometimes a thing that a cashier or sales associate needs, on some level, to have acknowledged.

  • http://apocalypsereview.wordpress.com/ Invisible Neutrino

    One other thing I try to do is not be difficult accidentally or on purpose. Last thing the cashier needs is me holding up the line to rummage through my wallet for store card X and cash card Y.

    Or starting a huge debate over a coupon or something. There’s always Customer Service for that esp at grocery stores like Safeway.

  • caryjamesbond

    It’s not about that, though. Sometimes, yeah, the corny jokes do help.

    Lets face it-a solid 90% of the things that make us feel shitty are things that either no one can help with, or only one specific person can help with- relationship problems, health, money, long hours, sore feet. But that one customer….hell, that one PERSON that takes the time to remind you that you’re a human being with worth and value, that fundamentally you’re worth the same as your shitty boss- that you aren’t just a cog in a machine….

    it makes a difference. It lightens your day. As a cashier, you start to feel like a human ATM after a while. Yeah, maybe you’ve heard that joke before, but, and I think this is what Fred was getting at-

    We all want to be acknowledged as human. As being more than our jobs. Ultimately, I’m worth just as much, probably just as smart and hardworking and full of human value as Donald Trump or Paris Hilton. But it’s easy to fall into classism. Easy to think that the people up the totem pole are worth more than the people down the totem pole. And someone acknowledging YOU, as opposed to your job…

    it’s nice.

  • Baby_Raptor

    I think it depends on the person. If a customer had noticed that I looked like I was having a crap shift and had made a genuine effort to cheer me up, I’d have appreciated it.

    I work tech support now, and have worked everything from Arbys to a rich peoples’ tennis club to Build-A-Bear. Customer service is just a crapshoot in most places. Anything you do to show appreciation is likely to make that employee’s day.

  • http://hummingwolf.livejournal.com/ Hummingwolf

    if he noticed a cashier ‘looked like she was having a bad day’ he’d try to say something funny, and I thought, you patronizing asshole.

    There are people doing that who aren’t patronizing assholes, but it depends on why they’re cracking that joke. Are they doing it to make the cashier smile, thereby making the joke-teller feel like they’re having an impact on the world? If so, does the joke-teller get offended if the cashier doesn’t smile on cue, and refuse to leave until the other person smiles? That person is clearly an asshole. On the other hand, if they’ll tell one joke and move on if that doesn’t seem to be brightening anyone’s day, they may be okay.

    Personally, if someone looks like they’re having a bad day, I’m likely to say, “You look like you’re having a bad day. I hope things get better.” But then again, I’m aware that (a) there are times when it’s simply impossible to smile, and (b) I’m not really a fount of fabulous jokes.

  • smrnda

    I know quite a few people who work in customer service who absolutely hate anybody trying to get them to smile and who feel that the obligation to smile and be cheerful and *look happy* is a crock o BS. If they’re having a bad day, they’d rather people just give them some space as they try to get through another tedious day without being told to smile and cheer up by random strangers.

    Part of the issue is working in customer service you don’t get privacy – you’re put on display and are supposed to be *HAPPY!* so that people will have more fun spending money. I design software. If I’m having a bad day, I can just be by myself and my emotions don’t become the concern (serious or patronizing) of everybody who happens to walk past.

    With your two joke tellers it just seems to me from talking to people that most of the joke tellers are the first part. They think they are both hilarious and that they’re having this HUGE impact by cracking a joke, and if the cashier or other person doesn’t seem to laugh they keep going and going in trying to be funny. There’s also the issue of power – the cashier is *supposed to laugh* at people who think they are funny.

  • http://anonsam.wordpress.com/ AnonymousSam

    Without a doubt, a random “cheer up!” from a stranger isn’t helpful. Tends to put me in an even worse mood. It’s a statement of privilege: “I’m happy, so I see no possible reason why you shouldn’t be too, so clearly you’re just making some sort of weird conscious decision to be miserable, a decision which I can reverse by commanding you to do otherwise. :D”

    On the other hand, “You look like you’re having a bad day. I hope things get better” isn’t the above.

  • Isabel C.


    Or–ugh ugh ugh ugh–“smile, baby”. I swear, the next person who says that is going to get told “Drop dead, and I will.”

    I also generally hated the chatty types when I had to interact with the public. (Exceptions for sweet elderly people and also for attractive young men, because I am only human.) Get in, get what you need, get out. I can entertain myself.

  • Space Marine Becka

    Worst case example of that in my personal experience.

    January 20th 2001 I’m standing outside the hospital in tears and some random bod says “Cheer up it might never happen.”

    Me: My mother just died.

    Them: Ah… *beats a hasty retreat*

    I mean seriously if someone is standing outside a hospital in tears they probably have a good reason. y.y

  • http://anonsam.wordpress.com/ AnonymousSam

    That was very stupid of that person, and I wish I knew what more to say than that besides “I’m sorry.”

  • guest

    All I could think of while reading this post was this:


    And thousands of similar stories, many of which have happened to me.

  • caryjamesbond

    Really? You think a story about a guy being a massive patronizing asshole who doesn’t listen or care what anyone has to say is like a story about Fred taking extra time out of his day to listen more, and better, just to make someone feel good?

  • http://apocalypsereview.wordpress.com/ Invisible Neutrino

    I think you have rather missed the point.

    Mansplained is about women who’re told they don’t matter by men too full of themselves to realize they’re being total dicks.

    That is consistent with the overall theme of the discussion engendered by Fred.

  • guest

    Yes, I do think the stories are similar, in that they’re about people being in a position to choose to react in one way or another to unsolicited advice. As someone who often gets unsolicited advice, I’m not sure it’s incumbent on me, or on my image of myself as a good, caring, generous person, to even pretend to listen to or accept it. Fred and Richard Beck are writing about listening to people’s advice from a position of social dominance (not that either of them would consider it that way, but they are more privileged than those they’re listening to in their stories)–but mansplaining, as well as the advice one gets from one’s employers, is different in that it’s ‘explaining down’, and the idea of ‘showing someone they matter’ seems less relevant–partly because we have less choice in the situation. ‘Showing someone they matter’ in these latter examples sounds to me uncomfortably like how victims should feel sorry for various types of perpetrators because they’ve had such a rough time.

  • guest

    Still thinking about this, I guess because it’s so close to home, and I hate not being able to meet Fred’s behavioural expectations! It seems as if Richard and Fred would think that the world would be that much kinder a place if only the woman in the story I linked to had swallowed her pride and taken a little time out of her busy day to listen to the poor man, and show him that he mattered. If not, why not? What’s the difference? His tone? I wouldn’t have thought so–I can’t imagine Richard and Fred saying ‘show people they matter, but only if they have the right attitude.’ The question of dominance and privilege? That would be my guess, except that Fred used the example of workers showing managers that they mattered. So I’m stumped. Maybe Fred or a commenter can help me out.

  • Jamoche

    Found on james_nicoll’s livejournal, and relevant to this post – Dustin Hoffman has an epiphany while preparing for his role in Tootsie:


    Oddly, you need Flash (or User Agent fakery) to see it on Youtube, but not when it’s embedded in James’ post:


  • flat

    nice post Fred

  • Daniel Björkman

    There’s a lot of comments here claiming that letting people give you useless help to make them feel not useless is patronising. I suppose that is true, and there was a time when I would have agreed forcefully – “Yes! Nothing could be worse than the insult of being condescended to! Better to have almost nothing and know you deserved it than have a bunch of things that might not be real!”

    But then life went and taught me just how fundamentally worthless I was.

    So, speaking as one of those useless people that Fred is talking about? I am all for people giving me condescending charity-appreciation. I am well past the point where I was willing to turn up my nose on any kind of charity. I know that might be hard to understand for people who have a sense of self-worth – it was hard for me to understand back when I had one of those – but for some of us an “opiate” is the best we can hope for.

  • themunck

    *Hugs* You are not worthless.

  • Daniel Björkman

    My experience says otherwise, but the sentiment is appreciated. *hugs*

  • AnonaMiss

    If you are good, you are not worthless. There is nothing you can do that is good that does not make you matter.

  • Daniel Björkman

    I don’t disagree with that logic, but the problem is, I am not at all sure I am especially good. Much of the time, I despair of even being of any use to myself, much less to anyone else.

  • AnonaMiss

    Have you considered seeking treatment for depression?

    You sound like me 3 years ago.

  • caryjamesbond

    This. Very much this. At the depths of my depression, that was exactly my attitude.

  • Daniel Björkman

    Yeah, I’m planning to get a doctor’s appointment and ask for a prescription of some antidepressants that have helped before, actually – just as soon as vacation time has restored enough energy to me that I can actually take hold of things like that.

  • hidden_urchin

    Hang in there. I think I can speak for most of the posters here when I say that we’re rooting for you.

  • Daniel Björkman

    Thank you.

  • Daniel

    I would like to offer you a contact who helped me feel better:
    If nothing else, it helps a lot to try to explain yourself. Your post already is eloquent and lucid, I am grateful to you for putting simply and clearly something I have struggled to say myself. It is a horrible hollow feeling, I know, and I really hope you stop feeling it soon. Good luck.

  • Daniel Björkman

    Hmm… thank you, but could you tell me what’s on the other end of that address? I feel a bit confused. ^_^;

  • Daniel

    Sorry, yes. It’s the Samaritans- they are a charity set up to listen to people with depression or worse and to help talk them through their problems. They are not able to diagnose anything, but they will listen. The website is

    I was at a very low point earlier this year, feeling a lot like you describe above, and it was very helpful to have someone to “listen” (via email). The “jo” bit is a generic name for their advisers.
    I don’t know your circumstances, of course, but they helped me.
    I hope this can be of some help to you.

  • Daniel Björkman

    Oh, I see. Thank you.

  • Isabel C.

    As an introvert, I feel one of two ways about this.

    The first is that I’m never–or almost never*–going to do that, because I don’t think social charity is a moral obligation in the same way that the financial sort is, and that the most we owe each other socially is not getting in each other’s face, but hey, if you want to put yourself out, go you.

    On the other hand, part of me thinks that putting up with Compulsive Liar or Guy Who Never Stops Talking or BO Chick, without saying anything, only makes it worse for the rest of us, because it means those people never catch on that what they’re doing is irritating–and if someone actually steps up to the plate and tells them, they can deny it because no, plenty of people like them the way they are, not knowing that most of those people just tolerate them out of charity or not wanting to make a scene or whatever.

    So…I dunno.

    *There’s also a difference between mattering to the world at large and mattering to a specific people. My co-workers and the people on the T don’t really matter to me, but I’m sure most of them do to *someone*–which makes socialization those other people’s problem, and not mine–whereas my friends and family do, so I’m more likely to put up with tics. Of course, people with tics that really bug me are unlikely to become my friends, so.

  • AnonaMiss

    I’m sure most of them do to *someone*–which makes socialization those other people’s problem, and not mine

    What about those who don’t?

    I’m not trying to imply that that does make it your problem, I’m just curious about your thoughts.

  • Isabel C.

    Book clubs. Flower-arranging groups. Softball leagues. Developing social skills–there are resources on the Internet for that. Finding out what you’re interested in and meeting people through those activities. It’s pretty harsh, but I do think that, if you’re an adult out in the world, making friends is your own responsibility, and not having them is generally your own fault.

  • Lorehead

    I don’t think that’s the right way to look at it. Saying that something is “generally your own fault” is usually a terrible excuse not to solve a problem, and people don’t let it stop them when it’s a problem that affects themselves.

  • Isabel C.

    Depends on the problem and what needs to be done to fix it. There are problems where the people around you are morally obligated to do something even if it’s your fault–calling 911 if you’re bleeding to death is the most blatant–there are problems where the state is morally obligated to do something and people are morally obligated to contribute through taxes and so forth–unemployment, heath care, welfare, etc–and then there are problems that are your problem.

    If I want my hot water fixed, it’s on me to call the super. If I want home-cooked food, I need to either learn how to cook or come to an arrangement with someone who knows. And if I want to make more friends, I have to figure out how to make myself agreeable to the sort of people I like, then go out there and meet new folks. Nobody is or should be under any obligation to come fix my tap, cook my supper, or put up with me if they don’t enjoy my company.

  • EllieMurasaki

    I would say the super’s obligated to come fix your tap, but then it’s their job to do so, and they can’t do it if they don’t know it needs doing. Otherwise, total agreement.

  • Isabel C.

    That’s a good point–and brings up a third category, where there are problems that people have knowingly signed on to solve should they come up. (Wow, that was a sentence.) Monetarily, that includes things like a broken cold water tap* or your cable going out; socially, it gets sticky, because I’d certainly say that being in a close relationship with someone obligates you to be a shoulder to cry on or a sounding board for working things out, but that’s got a lot of caveats like “within reason” and “as long as it’s reciprocated” and “making a good faith effort”, and everyone defines those things a little differently.

    *This is actually what I have, and struck me as particularly relevant, because rather than deal with calling the guy and waiting around for someone to come over and yadda yadda, I’ve learned to wash my face with very precise timing so I don’t boil it by mistake. This is definitely one of those things where I can’t blame anyone else. ;)

  • http://anonsam.wordpress.com/ AnonymousSam

    *Snirk* So you’re saying being an introvert is a problem and it’s up to introverts to fix it?

    I know, that wasn’t what you were saying. But after discovering that Myers-Briggs tests can be failed* and getting another round of helpful advice from someone** on how to pass them, this was already going through my head rather negatively.

    I’m a pretty bad introvert, but it doesn’t help that it often seems like I’m the only one in the crowd. We need to fight back against this isolation. Introverts, unite! … Just… not too closely or with too much random conversation, and, um, it’d be even better if we don’t have to leave our houses.

    * If you’re applying for a job, be prepared to be rejected outright if your test results indicate introversion.

    ** “You just have to lie!”

  • Isabel C.


    Well, as an introvert myself: nope. But then, I don’t see it as a problem–I’m reminded of some bit in Pippi Longstocking where she sees an ad asking “Do you suffer from freckles?” and she says nope, she enjoys every one of them.

    I would say that if you’re so compulsively extroverted that you feel the need to go all Chatty Cathy on people who only share the same building with you for eight hours because you all get bribed, *that’s* a problem. And not mine. But my views on office socialization are pretty well-known. ;)

    Although I do totally support lying on any employment tests, if that’s a feasible strategy. But I have an idiosyncratic relationship with honesty.

  • http://anonsam.wordpress.com/ AnonymousSam

    Said person once tried to get me to agree to a long, convoluted plan in which they and several other people would pretend that I was employed by a company which had closed its doors a few years ago. That sort of strikes me as a bad idea for about 9001 reasons.

  • Isabel C.

    Yeaaah. Telling lies that other people can easily check up on is probably unwise.

  • SisterCoyote

    If you’re applying for a job, be prepared to be rejected outright if your test results indicate introversion.

    …oh, shit. Good to know, thank you very much for mentioning this.

  • http://anonsam.wordpress.com/ AnonymousSam

    Yeah, learning this explained why so many machines were able to inform me that my application was denied without ever bothering to have it be read by an actual human: they’re programmed to filter out introverts on the MB test.

  • sarah

    …unless your boss is like mine and hires INFJs (without knowing that they’re INFJs til later on) because she’s also an INFJ. It doesn’t always work badly for us introverts.

  • arcseconds

    I’m not sure why you’d think that financial charity is a moral obligation but social charity isn’t.

    People need social support just as much as they need financial support. If they don’t get it, this results in bad outcomes, up to and including death (and harm to other people).

    Daniel’s example of the Samaritans is an excellent case in point.

  • Isabel C.

    A couple reasons come to mind–Maslow’s Hierarchy stuff, largely, and the way our system is set up–but mostly I was being unclear: I meant financial vs. social in terms of the stuff you give, not the target.

    I think you’re obligated to pay your taxes, not complain, and not lobby for tax cuts because otherwise you’ll have to live on “only” $100K a year. I also think that some of those taxes should go to fund organizations like the Samaritans, social welfare groups, community rec centers, and so forth, where trained and willing people do provide social support.

    I *don’t* think you’re obligated to invite Loud Howard or the Unofficial Drama Major to your parties. I also don’t think you’re obligated to make conversation with people you don’t know, or to not avoid (I wish there was a better way to say this–it’s not just “seek out”, but what I mean to say is that there’s nothing wrong with ducking away from the coffee machine when you see them coming) that one co-worker or the relative who can’t shut up.

    I hope this makes sense–I’m on some varieties of ‘Quil at the moment.

  • arcseconds

    I still don’t see why you don’t think there’s no obligation to provide for people’s social needs. In fact, it sounds like you think the government has an obligation to do this, but individuals don’t, which strikes me as rather strange.

    What if the government doesn’t do enough to meet people’s needs? Do you think there’s an obligation, or at least some kind of moral impetus, to give privately in those cases? Is there a difference between donating money or time to food banks and donating money or time to Samaritans?

    Is the second kind of optional, or a fun thing to do, whereas the first is obligatory?

    I don’t think your examples really show too much. I agree that there’s no requirement to invite annoying people to parties. But I think that’s for two reasons: one is that how you discharge your obligations to society is really up to you, so you don’t have to do something specific in any particular case.

    Secondly, spending an entire evening with an annoying person (and subjecting all your friends to them, too) is a high cost for most of us. It would be like giving a substantial portion of your weekly income to charity — few think that’s a requirement.

    Also, screw Maslow’s hierarchy. If anything, people need community, art and spiritual comfort more when they’re in great material need, not less.

  • Isabel C.

    For the first question…yes, basically. I think that a government is morally obligated to provide a physical and social safety net for all of its citizens, and that individuals are morally obligated to contribute to that upkeep in amounts proportional to their income. I don’t think that there’s any individual *obligation* over and above that, though it’s certainly good to contribute when you can: I don’t necessarily think less of someone who doesn’t give to charity unless that person is also advocating for tax cuts or keeping their money in an offshore account or whatnot.

    I also think that, insofar as an obligation does exist, it applies more to material resources. I do feel that I personally should give some percent of my income and, when helpful, volunteer time to various charities; I don’t feel that I should necessarily give any percent of my social energy to anyone except friends and close family. Which is sort of what I meant by material rather than social–we’re obligated to contribute to people’s social support structures, but we’re not obligated to do so via our own interactions.

  • rizzo

    “We all want to matter.”
    Aww hell no, I’d much rather be able to live quietly and not matter to anyone. Unfortunately I don’t have that option at this point in my life.

  • guest

    I was actually just thinking that–I do as well, and am now able to. I’ve learned to thrive on a very restricted diet of ‘strokes’ from others, and now prefer it that way because I’d rather have predictability than uncertainty.

  • DCFem

    I found this post to be an extremely helpful reminder to stop letting the people with nothing better to do get on my nerves. They really aren’t trying to be annoying, they just don’t have anything else to do and want to justify their jobs. So instead of griping about their behavior I can ignore their “helpfulness” while I look for another job.

  • hidden_urchin

    I try to keep in mind that everyone has worth because each person is entirely unique. It’s our job as a society to figure out how each person can best succeed. (Kind of like that community theater post of Fred’s.) We’re not there but I think it’s a good goal. I might not be able to change the world but it’s a philosophy I try to carry into any group I work with.


  • reynard61

    “That’s seminary-speak for the same idea conveyed in the unofficial motto of journalists, preachers and stand-up comedians: Comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable.”

    Really? Other than maybe Reverend Ref and a few other less-than-conventional men of the cloth, I haven’t been seeing much afflicting of The Comfortable by very many preachers these days. In fact, I’ve been seeing quite a bit of afflicting the afflicted (and then going into persecutorial vapors when called on it) by quite a few of them. (And, of course, quite a few so-called “journalists” are doing their share of comforting The Comfortable and afflicting the afflicted as well. Yes, FauxNoise; I’m talking about you.) That motto seems to be getting more and more “unofficial” with each passing day.

  • Sue White

    What if you have nothing in your life that commends you to others? What if you aren’t successful, don’t have a job, don’t have kids, or a spouse, or money for the Instragram-worthy vacation?

    Well, it’s interesting to learn that according to Beck, I don’t matter. I may or may not be successful, depending how you define it, but I meet the rest of that checklist. Now, I don’t happen to believe that I have nothing that commends me to others. I’m pretty sure my friends think I matter. But I still run into people now and then who think they should feel sorry for me just because I’m not married and/or don’t have kids. Then they think they have to “help” me. They can bite me.

  • AnonaMiss

    An upvote was not enough to demonstrate my agreement so have this comment of 100% agreement.

    Also I had thought my “asshole” interpretation of the Beck piece was colored by a previous negative interaction I had had with him. Now I know better, thank you.

  • Sue White

    Yeah, I’m finding it hard to like the guy. I mean, he goes on to imply that how much someone matters is correlated with how much money they have. And the only way someone can matter if they fall on hard times is by telling tall tales or whatever. That’s news to me. Losing your job or your electricity sucks enough without being told that now you don’t even matter. Somehow I always thought those were unrelated issues.

  • Susan_G1

    I’m surprised by all the reactions this has generated, but I don’t follow Slactivist. Was brought here by the title.

    It’s as if Jesus said, love thy neighbor, and everyone started to debate this.

  • http://anonsam.wordpress.com/ AnonymousSam

    When Jesus said “love thy neighbor,” people debated with him, too.

    And then they killed him.

  • jdens

    There’s someone who works in my building that I simply want to have no interactions with whatsoever because I find her tedious, irritating, and in her own way, demanding. She forces conversations about mundane topics (price of milk, time it takes her to get to work every morning, how early she arrived), and while that’s annoying, what I discovered I really resent is that she waits for me to give an appropriately impressed reaction to whatever she’s said. Whether that’s her own self-professed expertise in an area, or the price of milk at the shop next door or that she shaved another minute off her commute time this morning, or her repeated advice to me on a matter she knows nothing about, there seems to be no way to close the conversation graciously without acquiescing to being impressed–and if I do that, she takes it as encouragement to renew the conversation from the top.

    I don’t know much about her personal life, but I’m pretty sure that she’s woefully ill-equipped to work in the kinds of jobs she seems to think suitable (she’s working as an intern now as part of an unemployment benefit scheme, and the employers are trying hard to give her jobs she can’t mess up too badly) and at an age where training from scratch for anything is difficult. She is both incompetent at a lot of things necessary to work in the kinds of jobs she seems to aspire to and yet eager to be seen as expert and important. She deserves my compassion and she wants my respect, and I have given her the bare minimum of both. So thank you for this post because really, how does it harm me to give her some encouragement? (It is painful, though. Really squirmily painful. I’m hoping an attitude adjustment will help me give her the affirmation she seems to be desperate for. I know it’s the kind thing to do, but it is actually, physically difficult for me to do it.)

  • jdens

    I fully recognise that all of the above complaints are petty, and that her behavior is (mostly) harmless. I want to be a kind and patient person.

  • Cat

    When I was on a research trip in the north of England, with my Luggage of Doom and a case of plantar fasciitis so bad I needed a cane to get around, I was advised that the north was a dangerous place, and if I ever got lost, I should ask pensioners for directions. I tried that once, just once. After fifteen minutes of talking it over–quite charmingly, I’ll admit–the white men on the park bench in Birmingham sent me in ENTIRELY the wrong direction.

    After that incident, and after observing the dynamics of the north, I took to asking groups of young men of colour for directions. Every one of them seemed pleased to be asked, and after all the things I saw–the dress codes, the policing, the nonsense about “anti-social behaviour”–I thought trusting them would be a small way of returning what British society seemed to be doing its best to systematically strip away. And my trust was well placed; no one ever steered me wrong again.