My Compliment, Your Insult: How the exact same statement can affect two people differently

Everyone has a different perspective on life because everyone has gone through different experiences and seen different things; no one is exactly the same- (I know you’re thinking… “duh”). But this past week I have begun to understand just how different the people we live among on a day to day basis actually are.

Last Friday I over heard a conversation between two of my friends who are African American. For clarity I will call one woman Lauren, and the other Alexa (these are not their real names). Lauren began to explain that she had been in a meeting with a white man, and afterwards, the man said to her that she was “a very articulate speaker.” Alexa immediately responded “oh, wow,” which left me extremely confused. What was wrong with being called articulate? As a person who often struggles to speak eloquently, I would love to be called articulate, I see that as such a compliment! There was obviously something that I did not understand, so I began to ask questions. It turns out, that Lauren and Alexa both feel that as women of color, being called “articulate” by a white man infers that he did not expect Lauren to be able to speak so well, because she is a black woman. This got me thinking… what are the things that I say to people, intending for it to be a complement because I, myself, would see it as a compliment, when in reality it is an insult to them because of who they are.

Many people hold the belief that asking questions infers that you don’t understand something, which has a negative connotation. The truth is, asking questions often does mean that you do not understand something, but not understanding is nothing that anyone should ever apologize for. Asking questions should be viewed as a positive thing. Asking questions infers that you care to learn more about a subject. There is humility in admitting that there are things that you just don’t know or understand.

Asking questions gives you the power to have relationships with people who have different perspectives from you. Asking questions gives you the ability to be conscious of how other people perceive the world around them. While you may never truly understand the life they have lived, you can still be empathetic by being open and asking questions. You can also help others understand who you are and where you are coming from, by being open to the fact that they, like you, can’t possibly know everything. So, my goal for the remainder of the summer (and for the rest of my life I suppose) is to never stop asking questions, because there are always always ALWAYS going to be things that I just can’t possibly understand on my own based on who I am.

4 thoughts on “My Compliment, Your Insult: How the exact same statement can affect two people differently

  1. Melanie,

    I really like your post and your emphasis on two important points: intended compliments experienced as insults and the value of questions. I thought you might conclude by linking these two points explicitly. That is, I inferred from your example of Lauren and Alexa that they did not ask or clarify the intent of the white man; instead, they simply assumed a negative intent or a backhanded compliment and felt insulted rather than praised. Asking questions, whether clarifying or otherwise, can help to determine a speaker’s intent and improve understanding and the quality of relationships.

  2. Melanie, I just want to say YES!!! Questions are so powerful. Have you seen any of the literature on questions? It is very rich. For example http://www.javeriana.edu.co/decisiones/PowerfulQuestions.PDF and Vogt, E., Brown, J., and Issacs, D. (2003). The Art of Powerful Questions: Catalyzing Insight, Innovation, and Action. – but I try to always take these with a grain of salt and consider the context.

    So now I’m trying to think of a useful question to ask you to get to know more about you and your thinking in the context of the Moxie project. What question should I ask you? 😉

  3. And, in a moment of kismet, Susan Partnow (who is a great listener and question asker) posted this on FB. It might sound trite or saccarine, and it is not to suggest that anger or rejection does not have its place, but something about the “interior stability” bit really got me.

    “To listen is very hard, because it asks of us so much interior stability that we no longer need to prove ourselves by speeches, arguments, statements or declarations. True listeners no longer have an inner need to make their presence known. They are free to receive, welcome, to accept.

    Listening is much more than allowing another to talk while waiting for a chance to respond. Listening is paying full attention to others and welcoming them into our very beings. The beauty of listening is that those who are listened to start feeling accepted, start taking our words more seriously and discovering their true selves. Listening is a form of spiritual hospitality by which you invite strangers to become friends, to get to know their inner selves more fully, and even to dare to be silent with you.”

    –Henri Nouwen, Bread for the Journey,

  4. I’d just add that I thinking listening goes hand in hand with asking questions because you can’t reap the benefits of the information given if you don’t actually listen. It’s almost a chicken and egg proposition in a way because really listening allows you to ask better questions and get better information.

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