Thursday, May 3, 2007

On Being With Those One Dislikes

An excerpt from my soon-to-be-finished senior thesis, "The Art of Living."

However amiable our personalities may be, and however much we learn to appreciate the more subtle, finer points of an otherwise unsavory character, we still inevitably run into many people over the course of our lives who we simply don’t like. There’s nothing wrong with not liking someone; it’s natural. As far as dealing with them, remember that there are two types of people you dislike: those you can avoid, and those you can’t.

Needless to say, the first one is easily dealt with. Humans beings—as animals—are much better served by fleeing than by fighting. Evidence of this lies in our evolutionary features: we have no claws, horns, or fangs, but rather long loping legs that are perfectly designed for walking away from situations and people that we find repulsive.

Dealing with people you dislike but cannot avoid is, of course, somewhat trickier. There are as many schools of thought on the subject as there are stars in the sky (that is to say, hundreds). Most of these fall into one of two camps: “mediation” (essentially asking them to change or abandon whatever habit or characteristic offends you) or “compromise” (changing your own attitude so that the offending characteristic no longer feels offensive).

I reject both of these theories, not because they are unreasonable, but because in practice they have never worked for me. I advocate instead a far baser strategy for dealing with those you dislike: be as calm, civil, and detached as is possible when around them, and vent whatever anger they cause in you by cursing them profusely behind their back to a friend.

This method will be accused of being juvenile, petty, and perverse. It is none of these things. Rather, it is a means of maintaining working relations with the people you must work with, and letting out the stress that necessarily accompanies unresolved conflict.

I base this brand of interpersonal conflict resolution on the social cultures of two groups of people I have become familiar with over the years: poets and the Japanese.

It was during a study-abroad program—where the majority of my classmates and friends were Japanese— that I developed my (limited) understanding of Japanese civility and the importance of “face.” I was fascinated by the lengths to which my friends would go to avoid direct confrontation with the people that annoyed them, and was impressed by the cold, efficient ease with which they could work in close quarters with people they found frustrating. I therefore draw the first half of my conflict resolution model (detached civility) from them.

Largely because of this constant civility, however, Japan appears to be the second most repressed society in the world (second only to Britain). For balance, then, I take the second half of my model from the world’s least repressed culture: the culture that surrounds contemporary performance poetry. The collective social personality of performance poets can best be summarized by the title of poet Chris August’s book of collected works: Self-Righteous, Catty, Vulgar, Judgmental, Insecure: Five Fundamental Flaws and a Few Assorted Virtues. Indeed, all artists are masters of venting emotion.

Performance poets, I have found, are particularly good at releasing pent-up aggression, frustration, and bitterness in short bursts of (quite eloquent, humorous) whining. The resulting relationships, not surprisingly, are the polar opposite of the Japanese’s civil but repressed ones: poets become completely bogged down in drama, find each other utterly impossible to work with, but deal with their stress promptly, frankly, and healthily (or at least non-violently).

In fusing the two, I hope to “take the best and leave the rest.” When I must deal with people I don’t like, I strive to be a Japanese to their face and a poet behind their back, and I have no regrets.

I would regret, however, missing the opportunity to close this chapter without summing up my theory in the simple, beautiful place where the Japanese and the poets intersect.

A haiku:
Beneath the sun, a
calm breeze. But under the moon,
the winds rage and rage.

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