Towards the end of a 6-month trip I took to South America this year I started to think more about my relationships, and relationships in general. Something about the conversations I was having with people while traveling was more enjoyable. Travel conversations usually start of with small talk, but can progress quickly into much deeper areas, like the meaning of life, the reasons for working, and the things you don’t like about home. Conversations with the people I had been friends with for longer tended to be about sports & things that had happened recently or were going to happen. Topics that were not as engaging or, in my mind, as important.
Beyond just being more interesting I noticed that there was something else missing from travel conversations… insults. My conversations at home so often included teasing and I relied how refreshing it was to talk without insults. Instead of the word insult people call it teasing, giving people a hard time, or messing with people, but in reality it is the same thing as verbal abuse. People using words to tear someone down for their own benefit. Over time, in groups where people spend a lot of time together conversation changes from people sharing their feelings, thoughts, & goals into people insulting each other, being sarcastic and tearing each other down.
What makes the communication change from one of curiosity and openness towards others into cynicism and coldness? What makes conversations with fellow travelers more enjoyable than with coworkers?
When you are talking to someone in a hostel, in a gym, at a party, or on the street you are very aware of your choice to be in that conversation. You can always choose to leave, or to simply stop your conversation whenever you lose interest in it. In groups of coworkers, schoolmates, or long establish social circles, there is a sense of obligation about the relationships, like you have to interact with these people and that is when negative communication like sarcasm, and bullying appear.
At work, or at school people lose the sense that they are voluntarily interacting with everyone around them. People going to work start to lose interest in the people they are around all day, then they start to lose empathy, and eventually start to lose respect. People may decide to censor themselves to avoid a disagreement with a coworker, and that self-censorship will quickly turn into resentment.
Even if you enter a group with the intention of communicating positively it is really scary and hard to always stand up for yourself. Telling people your feelings are hurt, will inspire the group to tell you to not take things so seriously, and will probably lead to you being excluded.
Sarcasm, cynicism, and being mean to people in groups are socially acceptable and very popular. They inspire laughs from the bystanders and may help you gain traction in a group, but they are without a doubt negative communication. We like to pretend that you can lovingly be mean to people around you, that you can jokingly call people fat, or ugly, and because the people around you laugh you think it is okay. The victim of the bullying feels hurt but is scared or unable to express that pain because the person is “just joking” and their is a group of laughing people all laughing, giving sanction to the insults. Despite what we like to pretend insults do hurt people.
The sad thing is many people do insult people they care about. People are too scared to express that they care about someone so instead they insult them. People are too scared to say that their feelings are hurt to the person responsible so they talk about that person behind their back. People are to scared to admit that they are sad or in pain and instead are mean, and sarcastic with the people around them. All they need is some compassion from the people around them, honesty and authenticity, and a place to feel like they are cared about. But it scary to admit that to people, so instead we push people away with sarcastic comments and mean jokes.
I’ve noticed myself doing all of these things more and more. I hide behind cynicism, sarcasm, and insults because I’ve been losing touch with empathy for others, and feeling too scared to communicate my actual feelings. It is the culturally acceptable way to deal with pain, so it is easier in some ways. Going against the crowd is scary. People might call you boring, or not funny, tell you that you take things too seriously. But in avoiding sarcasm and communicating positively you will build stronger healthier connections with people. People won’t have to decipher that your insults mean you care about them, because you will communicate that to them. Your honest expression of your feelings will inspire the same from the people around you.