“Mind if I say something?” (A 90-second reading on tolerance)

January 27, 2012
By

tolerance-2Halfway through a first class meeting a few years ago, the professor announced a 10 minute break.  The person seated next to me, whom I had only just met, said to me, “Do you mind if I say something?”  Thinking it difficult to answer that question with a “Yes, I do mind,” I replied, “Of course not.  Go ahead.”  She then distorted her face and said, “Your pen STINKS!  I hate the way it smells.”

I looked at her, and tried to process what had just happened.  She had used the question, “Do you mind if I say something?” as a pathway to rudeness, and as an excuse for her lack of decorum and manners.  In the simple matter of a pen, it wasn’t really a big deal, but I fear that, as a society at large, we have adopted this strategy.  By asking permission to speak into someone’s life, we feel justified and welcome to say whatever we please.

Whatever happened to tolerance?

Surely we can embrace the fact that we share this world with others, meaning that at times—even often—we are going to encounter circumstances, situations, relationships and personalities that make us uncomfortable.  So what?  When did it become acceptable to put a premium on self-comfort?

Is there something wrong with being tolerant?  According to thesaurus.com, the following are all synonyms for the word tolerant:  advanced, benevolent, big, charitable, fair, forbearing, forgiving, humane, kindhearted, long-suffering, magnanimous, merciful, patient, progressive, receptive, sophisticated, sympathetic, understanding, and unprejudiced.

I would be happy to be defined by any one of those terms.  Let us exhort one another to be tolerant, long-suffering, and merciful.

By the way, as I processed my classmate’s statement about my smelly pen, I carefully (though quickly) considered my reply, and decided on the following: “Oh, I’m sorry!!  I didn’t notice a scent from the pen.  So what shall we do?  Do you want me to use a different pen, or would you like to find a different seat?”  In reflection, I’m not sure my reply was magnanimous.  What might have been a better response?  Please comment below.

11 Responses to “Mind if I say something?” (A 90-second reading on tolerance)

  1. January 27, 2012 at 5:41 am

    I would have omitted the offer to use a different pen. There is an old saying that goes “If you can’t stand the heat, get out of the kitchen.” Let me amend it for this circumstance, “If you can’t stand the pen, get out of that seat.” Tolerance, as currently executed, means the right to impose and interfere without objection from the one being imposed upon or interfered with. There’s another old saying, “Live and let live.” Your classmate should learn that one well and quickly. I gave up on organized religion mostly because its adherents wouldn’t leave each other alone. They were always imposing and interfering. Jesus challenge directly applies here, “Don’t try to remove a even a teensy tiny little splinter from someones elses eye until you take that stick out of your own.”

    Good post, this one of yours.

  2. January 27, 2012 at 5:48 am

    Thanks. I hear ya’. My next post is a list of four questions I have learned to ask myself before I offer counsel. One of them speaks to the issue of responsibility when speaking into another’s life. If you want to get behind the wheel of a car, you must be willing to accept the consequences of where that car ends up, and what happens to it along the way. I write: “With control comes liability.” This notion seems completely lost to some.

  3. January 27, 2012 at 5:55 am

    I’m trying to imagine this happening to me and I know I would have floundered for a response, because I would have been flabbergasted by the entire conversation. I think your response displayed tolerance.

  4. January 27, 2012 at 5:59 am

    Thanks, Lynne! I was really taken aback. FYI, she replied, “Well, I guess since it’s my issue, I’ll sit somewhere else.”

  5. Hannah
    January 29, 2012 at 12:24 am

    That is crazy. People feel they always have to have an opinion. I would probably have told her that she must be the one smelling and mind her own business.

  6. Fabi
    January 29, 2012 at 8:45 am

    I read this and wondered what would be another way to express her discomfort. Putting myself in her shoes I would’ve probably just moved (but then I’d be concerned about what that would say to you). Imagining a different exchange…hmm

    • January 29, 2012 at 8:51 am

      Fabi: Thanks for this comment. Yes, moving was one choice. Tolerance was another. Again, in the matter of the pen, no big deal. I simply used it as a minor example of a larger issue. Thanks for your comment on Facebook, too. I hear ya. If more revelations or thoughts arise, please post. Let’s unpack this thoroughly. = )

      • Fabi
        January 29, 2012 at 8:57 am

        Just read your blog to my husband- we both agreed that if we both decided to just move without saying something that we would both be concerned about your feelings about this. I said I’d probably just sit through the smell, he said he’d probably say to you “I think I may be allergic to your pen”….

        • January 29, 2012 at 9:00 am

          Thanks for the feedback. Interesting how complicated grace and decorum are to balance with personal comfort, isn’t it?

  7. Sharran
    January 30, 2012 at 4:48 pm

    I think it’s good that she ultimatley claimed responsibility. She certainly could have used more tact!!!! I think had I been in your shoes I might have responded (after feeling a bit put off): “I didn’t notice a smell coming from the pen. I’m sorry it bothers you. How do you suggest we proceed?” Or something like that.

    Related to this — I think of many a star trek episode where mr. riker was speaking to someone higher in command, and asking “Permission to speak freely”…..in some ways, it’s the same as “May I say something?” But, once permission HAS been granted to speak freely, we need to proceed with grace, love, and compassion especially when we know it will be a hard pill for the other person to swallow.

    That doesn’t always mean using a lot of words, or not being direct. There have been times when something my husband says is hard to hear, but upon examination, I *needed* to hear it — and I know he was saying it in love and out of a desire to lead our family in the love/admonition of the Lord. In that sense, God has given him a unique authority to speak into my life. Thankfully, my husband is NOT the type to mis-use that authority.

    I have a long-time friend with whom at times I have been very very direct. But we have 20 plus years of friendship between us. In my opinion, it all depends on the situation/person and discernment is especially important.

    Good discussions!

    • January 31, 2012 at 5:29 am

      Sharran, Thanks for this. I hear your points, and agree. This human experience is complex, and we need each other. Blessings, –Nathaniel

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Nathaniel is CEO of AidChild.org. He holds a Master's Degree in Human Development and Psychology from Harvard University where he was a Reynolds Fellow in Social Entrepreneurship, and winner of the 2010 Harvard HDP Marshal Award. He also holds a PhD in Leadership Studies from the University of San Diego where he was the Dammeyer Fellow in Global Education Leadership, and a Cordes Fellow at Opportunity Collaboration. Nathaniel is author of "We Are Not Mahogany: Three stories about the male African life." Prior to his move to Uganda in 2000, Nathaniel was Deputy Director of the Office of the Governor of Arizona, and Director of Education at Leadership, Inc.

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