In 2019, I resolve to be kinder, more curious, and to have more courage. I wish to greet people with more compassion, to seek to understand them better, and to overcome the barriers that separate us from each other.
It is not one of my new year’s resolutions to be more politically correct. “Political correctness” is back in the news. There were two polls published in 2018 which show that a majority of Americans think our country is becoming too politically correct, or are wary of further political correctness. (You can see these polls here and here.)
But what does political correctness really mean? One complaint readers have had with these polls is the difficulty they had in defining political correctness. What I think people are worried about is the feeling that there are rules for engagement with other humans which they don’t understand. They are worried that ordinary conversation will become impossible, or that they will be accused of ignorance or malice when they are only trying to be friendly.
This is why I’m focusing on kindness. When we’re talking with people we don’t necessarily know, we should try first to be kind. It is kind to treat people the way they wish to be treated. It is kind to be inclusive in our conversation with one another. It is kind to be gracious and welcoming of others, even if their identities or culture is different from our own.
But what if we don’t know how someone else wants to be treated? What if we don’t know what might be expected in a different culture? This is where curiosity comes in. Some years ago, I traveled in Lithuania with my family, including my aunt who had spent two years living and working in neighboring Belarus. Whenever I paid for something, I handed the clerk my money. Whenever I received change, the clerk placed the change on a tray and slid it toward me. Seeing this, my aunt told me, “In Baltic culture, it’s rude to hand money directly from one person to another. You should put your money on the tray and slide it to them; then they will put your change on the tray and slide it to you.”
I only felt embarrassed for a moment. After all, I had been merely ignorant. I was glad to have learned something about how to be polite in another culture. All the clerks I had met had shown me a great deal of kindness in accepting my inadvertently rude behavior. Cultural differences abound, and we are bound to make mistakes. Curiosity keeps us open to learning new things. Kindness ensures that we treat one another with compassion as we learn together how to be.
In that moment in a cafe in Lithuania, I had to overcome my worry that I had done something wrong. Gaffes and miscommunication are inevitable between people. This is why we need courage. Courage gives us the strength to ask someone what pronouns they prefer if we’re not sure. Courage helps us ask about a cultural practice we don’t understand. Courage helps us risk being rude on our way to being more understanding. In order to practice curiosity, we need courage. But both will help us be more kind.
Whatever we think about political correctness, the world needs more kindness. Differences among people can be wonderful. In a world of division and distrust, however, they can be the cause of discrimination and even violence. As people of goodwill, our call is to emphasize the beauty of our diversity. Our call is to seek understanding even if we’re afraid or not sure of the right thing. I vow to work toward the world I dream of in 2019 with kindness, curiosity and courage.
Rev. Sarah Stewart