When I was in college, I worked for what seemed like an eternity as a waiter to pay the bills. The flexibility, high pay relative to other entry-level positions, and especially the social climate were extremely attractive to me fresh out of high school. Everyday, going into work not only fulfilled my need to make money, but I could connect with my peers in an intimate, open, almost familial way. In fact, we sometimes quipped that we were like a family - except for the fact that we were all dating each other. Looking back, this experience was extremely valuable in my development in a number of areas, none more so than in my social development. Every day, I tried and succeeded, or failed at any number of attempts to redefine my identity in the eyes of others and myself. The immediate feedback and mostly forgiving nature of the environment created a great stage for this. I used to joke that, if a conversation wasn’t going my way, I always had a good excuse to hastily retreat - an option I exercised often.
One of these attempts to try a new approach sticks out and is now a fundamental principle on how I interact with others in all types of relationships. This involved a female server at the restaurant who I had worked with for a while but with whom I hadn’t managed to form a positive connection. In fact, I began to dread working with her because she was...not friendly. For months I had been wholly convinced this was personal, that there was something about me she didn’t like, and I felt rejected. Since I already had a close group of friends providing me support and validation, this didn’t have a major impact on me - I just noticed and disliked this reality.
One day, though, I decided to try something to change the situation. I had been resigned for some time to ignoring her crabby remarks or just generally avoiding her as much as I could. But on this day, I decided to engage in a way that I hadn’t before. I remember being in the side station and feeling her frustration as she had just gotten double sat (meaning two new tables at once). She was grumbling under her breath as she walked back to where I was. I stood tall and asked her if there was anything I could do to help her and, as I expected, she snapped back, “I can do this myself.” I calmly responded “ok” and said that if she needed anything, to let me know. As the night progressed, I continued to take this approach, taking a deep breath each time she responded unkindly. At some point when the dinner rush had passed, I mustered up my courage and asked her how she was. This time, I was surprised by her response. She actually decided to share! And it wasn’t just some superficial response, it was emotionally raw and personal - specific events in her life not panning out as she would like and her frustration about this. I listened and offered what consolation I could. I remember feeling a shift at that moment, like I had - for the first time - really connected with her. It felt good.
Once this happened, I knew I had to keep offering myself in this way. I continued to practice this approach with her as we worked together, and I noticed that, each time, she became less resistant to share what was really going on with her. At some point, the bluntly rude demeanor and words disappeared. And now, when she came in to work she would flash a smile to me and say hello. As I looked around, though, she was not offering this to others - at least at first. I realized that I had created this relationship with her, transforming it from what it had once seemed destined to be forever. I felt pride and satisfaction for this shift. I even remember her asking me at some point, “Shawn, why are you always so nice to me?” Damn, I’m tearing up thinking about this.
My lesson from this has been, regardless of how someone treats me, my best option is to treat them with kindness. I learned that it wasn’t personal after all. Her behavior was about her stuff, not about me. This has proven to be true in other similar experiences. I’ve also watched many of my own relationships transform before my eyes because of my refusal to respond unkindly when I am hurt. I have had to hone this skill, as I have also found it important to set boundaries so that I am not taken advantage of. With all of the effort I have put in, it has been far exceeded by the payoff. I now often remind myself - hurt people hurt people and kindness begets kindness.