Have you ever really met him/her?

Faceless ladies

Among several famous Will Rogers sayings is this one: “I never met a man I didn’t like.” It is a joke almost as old as the original publication of that line in 1927: “Yeah, but he never met So-and-so” (fill in the name of whoever you are claiming even Will Rogers wouldn’t like).

The opposite old saying is this: “Familiarity breeds contempt.”

There is something ironic in the fact that we can develop the greatest dislike for people we don’t know at all and people we know too well.

On the one hand, we have people vilifying entire groups of people they don’t know individually. “The rich,” “the millenials,” “the [fill in racial group],” “the Muslims,” “the Democrats,” “the Republicans,” “the godless atheists,” “the crazy religionists”…. The thing is, it’s easy to hate people when they are not people to you, but merely labels, faceless masses.

Most racism, nationalism, sexism, etc., is some form of this. It is plain old-fashioned xenophobia–fear of the outsider. I remember my mother, for instance, being deathly afraid of black people, despite that fact that every single¬†individual black person she knew were “exceptions.” The logical contradiction of everyone being an exception didn’t occur to her. When she knew a member of the feared group individually, she lost her fear.

On the other hand, we also tend to treat the people closest to us rather¬†poorly. Notice how polite your children and your spouse are to strangers or friends? And how snappish they can be with you? (Note: chances are, they think the same thing of you.) How different would it be if we treated our own family members at least as well as we do new friends? (There are always exceptions–some people are rude to strangers, friends, family members, and just about everybody. Still, this seems to be the more usual pattern.)

These two extremes have something in common: in either case, we do not see the individual in front of us. Xenophobics aren’t seeing individuals; they are seeing groups. When we get so familiar that we take family members for granted, we aren’t really seeing them anymore either.

A common mindfulness exercise has you take a familiar object like an orange and fully experience it–feel it, smell it, look at it closely, note its texture, note your salivary response, slowly peel it, look closely at how its flesh feels, how the pith divides the segments, how a segment feels as you slowly take it into your mouth and bite it, etc. It makes the ordinary extraordinary.

If you suddenly treated your spouse or your kid that way, they would wonder what happened to you. But we can get closer, and reap benefits. Right now, take a look at someone you’ve lived with for years but haven’t really seen. Really see them. What does it do to your heart? (Note: I recognize this can be dangerous in that you may realize you really don’t like that person. At least you will feel something.)

We’ll consider more later about connecting with individuals within those groups you have no face for.

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Author: Donn King

Donn King works with individuals and organizations who want to forge top-notch communication skills to increase their influence and impact. He is associate professor of speech and journalism at Pellissippi State Community College in Knoxville, Tennessee, as well as a speaker and writer. His background includes ministry, newspaper, radio, small magazines and other publications, as well as co-authoring a textbook and blogging.