How to Be a Gracious Pariah

How to Be a Gracious Pariah September 15, 2017


Most of the time it is impossible to know why someone stops talking to you. Is it something you said? Is it something you did? Sometimes it’s one. Sometimes it’s both. Sometimes it is something else.

And sometimes you shouldn’t apologize, even when it is something you said or did. But sometimes you should. It depends on a number of things. But even when you should it is impossible to make things right if you don’t know what you did wrong.

Getting back to the something else. People can be funny when it comes to that. Most people live in fear. They are status seekers and they’re afraid to associate with people who may hurt their standing in some group.

It can happen anywhere, even among people who like to think of themselves as the loving sort, pastors for example. (I’m suspicious of self-identified “lovers”. I’ve been the target of their vitriol enough times to know that the more insistent a person is about that the more I should prepare for a sucker punch.)

Now in any group there is a pecking order. And in my experience a quick way to find yourself on the bottom is by ignoring it.

Here’s how this has worked for me. I enter a group. Some high-status person sidles up along side me and offers me a place in his program. I almost never take these offers. (Sometimes I do.) But I’ve got my own projects. And while I’m happy to form alliances, generally I’m not looking to become anyone’s functionary.

This is usually enough to send me to the bottom. But what really sends me into pariah status most of the time is going outside the group. Maybe I make friends with the wrong sort of people, or get published somewhere that is a little too prominent, and a little suspect to boot! When this happens, boom! I’m a pariah.

Now, confession time. Sometimes I say stupid things, or I’m surly. In those cases I enter pariah status for justifiable reasons. I’m working on this and I think I’m getting a little more discreet when it comes to my opinions.

The signal that I’ve become a pariah is usually a subtle slight of some kind. Being avoided, for instance. (On occasion it is laughable to see what people do to avoid me.) Other times an email goes unanswered, or someone I know is home doesn’t pick up the phone.

And in some cases, when I can not recall anything to justify these slights, I assume there was some conversation somewhere out of earshot and I’ve been blackballed. It is no longer personal. The group has labeled be persona non grata.

Staying gracious at those times takes effort.  (It has happened to me more than I like to think about.) Here are some thoughts on liking people who don’t like you. (Seems to me that liking them is harder than loving them. You don’t have to like people to love them; but to like them–well, now you’re talking about increasing the level of difficulty!)

Assume the best.

Let’s look at the email scenario. There are basically 4 reasons someone doesn’t answer your email:

  1. They’ve not seen it. It can happen for a range of reasons. Maybe your note is in the junk mail folder. Maybe this person looks at email infrequently. Maybe you sent it to an old address.
  2. Perhaps the person is really, really busy. I usually give a person a week. (Generally I send a second upbeat email as a reminder, then wait another week.) Even so, if even a busy person doesn’t get back to you in a couple of weeks you have a pretty good idea what you rate in that person’s world.
  3. Which brings me to not rating. You may have done something to deserve a low rating. But if you can’t think of anything, what to do? (I conclude this when assuming either 1 or 2 is no longer possible.)
  4. Finally, the person in question hates you. But again, if you don’t know why, there’s nothing to be done to make it right apart from just being gracious in the face of hate.


How to stay gracious?

I think it is important to stay gracious for a number of good reasons. One of the best is people can change. I’ve seen people warm up to me after years of what seems to me to be irrational hostility. Another, less praiseworthy reason is you don’t want to give them material with which to justify their contempt. The best way to really flummox people who dislike you is to be gracious to them. (Sometimes I feign hearing loss when insulted.) At the very least you can refrain from criticizing them either in public or in private.

Here is my paradoxical secret for doing this. I tell myself, “I don’t need this person’s approval.”

If you feel a desperate need to be liked, you will either grovel for it, or look to vindicate yourself. But if you can say, “I don’t really need to be here, and I don’t really need you to like me”, then paradoxically, you can stay where you are, and be gracious to people who don’t like you. After all, if you really don’t need them to like you, what difference does their disdain make?

That’s what I do, anyway. And it seems to work.

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