Thursday, November 30, 2023

Hopeful Thinking - Saturday, November 26, 2022 - Mean What You Say

I’ve been paying attention for a while now when people say “have a nice day.” What I’ve been noticing is how often it is said mindlessly. Thrown out as a habituated thing-to-say, rather than a genuine hope that my day be optimal. Have a nice day. Same to you. 

It’s made me more aware of how I use the phrase myself, and the distinct change in people when I sincerely say it rather than just casually throw it out there. 

Several years ago I began replying to “have a nice day” with a smile and an “I will if you will!” I’m not being sarcastic, despite the way it reads. Tone of voice is everything, of course. I am completely sincere whenever I say it. Which is often.

It has the effect of disrupting the moment in a positive way. If I don’t get much of a response, even a slight reaction means I was at least subconsciously apprehended by them in a way that wouldn’t have been true if I’d just replied in kind. But sometimes it gets quite a response. Always good, thankfully.

I’m not replying “I will if you will” to a casually dispensed “have a nice day” just to be cute, either. I’m being intentional, even a bit spiritually deliberate. 

There are reasons for making purposeful variations on everyday customs like this. It gets us out of the habit of rote responses that don’t mean much. People perceive sincerity, even if not consciously. It’s like body language in that way. We often are processing information about others on multiple levels of awareness even if we aren’t fully conscious of most of them. A person who is sincere in their subtleties is often viewed as trustworthy or genuine, even if we’ve never had occasion to evaluate their genuineness or trustworthiness. There’s just something about them that makes us feel more comfortable.

But also, when we choose to practice sincerity with intentionality, it signals our own brains regarding the concepts of honesty and sincerity in general. In other words, it has a ripple effect on our own psyches to make mindful choices about the seemingly inconsequential words and phrases we use. 

To be clear, no one’s getting hurt by the customary exchanges as they exist. I’m not advocating that we all dispense with the usual pleasantries, even if rote. But making deliberate little tweaks to the usual script just for the sake of it can have an effect of laying the groundwork for other preferable but stubborn changes we long to make within ourselves.

I also notice that people often ask ‘howya doin?’ but either don’t expect a real response or don’t want one. Imagine someone behind the deli counter at the store saying to you, “howya doin?” as a customary preamble to what-can-I-get-you and your reply is a lengthy response about how your sciatica is flaring up and you’re considering divorce but are staying in it for the time being because of the kids. He really just wants to get your salami order.

It’s easy to sound critical of those who are just filling up the awkward silences with words that aren’t intended to be taken literally. The deli guy doesn’t actually want to know how I am doing. And I might be told to have a nice day as a form of see-you-later, but they don’t really care whether I do or not. That’s okay.

These customs are so engrained in society that to be upset by them, once we start to notice just how pervasively they occur, is a waste of time and energy. Better to be the sincerity we wish to see in the world (hello again, Gandhi) than to be resistant to others’ lack of it. By being more sincere, you’ll tend to attract those who also believe in sincerity anyway. And by seeking to be at peace with those who don't, we enhance our resiliency in life.

Start off by just noticing when you say “have a nice day” or “how are you doing” and wonder if you really mean it. Consider what it would mean to genuinely ask someone how they’re doing and be prepared to get a complete answer. You probably won’t get a complete answer, of course, but in being prepared to receive one you’re signaling sincerity with your tone and phrasing. If you actually get an answer, listen patiently. It’s worth it.

These subtle behavioral cues are perceptible by people. Especially those whose trust has been betrayed by others in the past. They have particularly refined antennae for perceiving insincerity in others. By demonstrating authenticity you’re being deemed safe. 

This all ultimately points to a wider suggestion that we refine our relationships with other people using deliberate authenticity as a form of spiritual practice. Like a lot of behavioral tidbits tucked away in world scripture, it’s pretty good advice. It is certainly the advice of all religions to be sincere. Insincerity is a low-grade form of lying when you think about it. And scripture definitely has an opinion about that.

A lack of sincerity in our daily pleasantries will not cause harm. But intentional sincerity in places where it isn’t expected will move mountains.

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