Wendy Kalman
There are many ways to see and understand

The tenor of our tone

I am in a number of groups on Facebook, ranging from humor and music to multicultural and multilingual, and, of course, a healthy dose of those dedicated to resolving the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, or at least to promoting cross-dialogue and understanding. The conversations in those groups are not always easy, and truthfully, not every participant is ready to put his own side under the same microscope as the other. But sometimes, we see introspection, honesty, humility and true dialogue carried out in a respectful manner.

But when I think about discourse both on and off social media, this appears to be the exception rather than the rule.

Empathy – which I have written about before – is really important. I see no better way that to try to understand where others are coming from that by putting oneself in another’s shoes. Without preconditions. I also see that it can be a very big ask for someone so rooted in what he sees as the righteousness of his own stance on a particular topic to try and see from another’s.

So, although it is a goal, it might not the only target to aim for.  It might be too big an ask.

So, let’s turn to another one of my favorite topics: the Golden Rule, treating others as we would want to be treated. Even if we cannot put ourselves in another person’s place, we can still be polite. Do the right thing a la derech eretz (I even created a checklist for children). Be a mensch. As my father used to say, “Think before you speak.” And really, I would say that is a good rule of thumb anyway. It makes me think of that Bernard Melzer quote, “Before you speak ask yourself if what you are going to say is true, is kind, is necessary, is helpful. If the answer is no, maybe what you are about to say should be left unsaid.” Hey, if you wouldn’t say it out loud in a room of your peers, colleagues, prospective bosses or your entire family, then find another way to frame the point you want to make. There is always another way.

Let’s look at this from another angle.

Beyond the concepts of how we treat others speaks to our character or how the language we choose ought to be safe for our grandparents’ ears, what if we looked at how these choices are received by those on the receiving end – or by those watching the sparks fly?

Let’s start with the latter, since that’s easier. Spectators to online exchanges who see rude, aggressive or selfish words being thrown about not only become indifferent to the tone due to its pervasiveness, but wind up thinking that this is normal and acceptable. It is not. They also form opinions of the people involved. If paths cross more than once – or even if they don’t, this might be worth thinking about: What impression do you want others to have about how you handle disagreements or treat other human beings?

So let’s now talk about those towards whom the arrows are directed. It is important to understand that someone who takes a dramatically opposite position from yours and who hears your words cannot and will not be swayed by insults, dismissiveness or a tone of belligerence. It simply will not happen. (Nor will others who are witness to the exchange suddenly see things your way if your tone deingrates your “opponent.”)

Nor will making sweeping pronouncements be received well by anyone who doesn’t see things the way you do. Not only because nothing is ever as simple as a phrase that pretends to capture universal truth or an eye-catching meme, but because your truth is not the only truth. Nothing is this or that, black or white. And if a statement excludes all kinds of other possibilities, it loses credibility.

For me, I think a lot about belligerence. About how many people stake positions – whether we are speaking about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict or anything else – and present their arguments in a belligerent tone.

Tone matters.

I cannot hear what is being said when it is being said in a way that is belligerent. I cannot consider arguments when I am verbally assaulted. I cannot work on a solution when I feel that an attack must first be defended. If the purpose is to point out wrongs, a nice rule of thumb I’ve learned is to characterize the actions, not the person. “What you did was fill-in-the-blank” (not “You are fill-in-that-blank”) “and let me explain why” allows the person needed space to learn.

This, of course, makes me wonder why people write what they write or say what they say. What is their actual goal? If the goal is to make things better (which requires dialogue, brainstorming, solution-finding, action), then the tone being used must invite that kind of response. We cannot grow our team if we attack recruits.

Moreover, if we frame the issue at hand – I repeat, the issue – as the problem, then we can invite others to help us solve it. For that, we have to stop picking sides, and start picking causes.

And if we know that practicing empathy or even the Golden Rule is a bit outside of our comfort zone at this point, then why not aim for reframing how we approach topics as our starting point, that is, removing belligerence from both the positions we take and the ways we express it?

About the Author
Born in Brooklyn and raised on Long Island, Wendy lived in Jerusalem for over a decade submerged in Israeli culture; she has been soaked in Southern life in metro Atlanta since returning to the U.S. in 2003. An Ashkenazi mom to Mizrahi sons born in Israel and the US, a DIL born in France and a step mom to sons born in the South, she celebrates trying to see from multiple perspectives and hope this comes out in her blogs. Wendy splits her time between her research position at the Center for Israel Education, completing dual master's degrees in public administration and integrated global communications, digging into genealogy and bring distant family together, relentlessly Facebooking, and enjoying the arts as well. All of this is to say -- there are many ways to see and understand.
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