Loneliness and Social Engagement

AKA: Are you a friend, a rock thrower, or a coat holder?

A few years ago, someone emailed me a question. We had an active project that we were getting ready to release publicly, but it wasn’t ready to be shared that day. I replied to the email. In my response, I told her that we were working on an answer to her question, but that I couldn’t give her a specific answer right then.

Around that time, a thread was created in a Facebook group about me. There were hundreds of posts in that thread and it went on for days. It was awful. I remember their names, what they said, and where I was sitting when I found the thread. Some of the people that I would have expected to defend me were, instead, holding the coats of the people who were throwing rocks. My inbox was quiet when I needed it to be filled with encouragement. Someone sent me an email telling me they wished I was dead. And it changed me. Not long later, the truth was known, the thread was deleted, and that mama sent me a heartfelt apology.  It’s been years now, but that day was truly life-altering.  Business owners are supposed to have thick skin, but we aren’t robots. I changed, and I see things differently now. When I see those threads, I ask more questions and… I pause. Let me explain why.

Remember the woman who was shaving her legs in the swimming pool?

How can we forget? Every time I see this video, I cringe. Yes, it’s gross, but I’m not cringing because she’s shaving her legs in the pool. Because she is sitting by the shallow end of the pool, I’ve told myself a story about why she might have been shaving her legs there that day.

The kids wanted to go to the pool. For hours, they have hollered at their mama until she was on the verge of losing her mind. She put a swimsuit on her body, packed those kids up and went to the pool. On the way out the door, her verbally abusive husband said something awful about the hair on her legs.  Shaving is a luxury because she’s working full-time and just trying to keep everyone alive.  There is a locker room at the pool, so she grabbed her razor and planned to shave there. Then her autistic five-year-old ran out of the locker room before she could finish.  She chased him out of the locker room and now she’s sitting on the edge of the pool so he doesn’t drown. Someone grabbed video and posted it to Reddit before she could put the razor away.

That’s not a real story.

We have no idea who that woman is or why she was shaving her legs in the pool that morning.  That video showed up in my feed so many times that day though and that video is what I’m going to use to challenge you today.

What if you had an unfortunate moment shared on Reddit?  What questions would you wish had been asked first? Would we have been more understanding if we’d known more about her story? Maybe.  We would have been more informed though and it might have changed the tone of the conversation.

Did you know the whole story about the woman in that video?  You thought you did. So did everyone else who shared the video. Did you actually know the story? Of course, you didn’t. Like me, you were just grossed out by someone shaving their legs in a swimming pool.

Our experiences blind us as much as they inform us.

According to Harvard Business Review, we are, in fact, fooled by our own experience. “We persist in believing that we have gleaned the correct insights from our own experience and from the accounts of other people.”

How are we experientially blind?

As a business person, perhaps there’s a problem that I need to resolve. “Hmmm, I’ve seen this situation before. Based on that experience, the correct answer is X.” A good leader informs their solution with experience, advice from a team, data, and thoughtful reflection. Yet even good leaders make overly confident and bad decisions based on a lack of information. That leader has been “fooled by their own experience”.  If they’d slowed down to ask a few more questions, they would have made a different decision.

Apply that scenario to a single sentence and the internet’s quick rush to judgment about a single person’s value.  Is it possible that online, our limited perspective is playing out at the cost of actual lives and reputations? A similar storyline plays out in social feeds every day. One sentence. Someone jumps. Everyone shares. Questions aren’t asked. Misunderstandings play out in front of thousands. People are labeled. Lives and reputations ruined. The truth is told. The internet gets bored. Life moves on… and the person destroyed has to figure out how to pick up the pieces, even when the internet was wrong.

None of us are perfect. Everyone has value.  We’re all on a journey and learning is part of that journey. I’m not the same person that I was ten years ago. Neither are you.

What if you’re evaluated someday by someone based on the equivalent of the proverbial video of you shaving your legs at the pool?

Lonely people are watching.

Some are participating, but many others are just watching and retreating.  When do you stop talking to someone? When you stop trusting. Perhaps, as we watch the non-stop conveyer belt of people being destroyed by social media, we should consider “lack of social trust” as one reason why Generation Y  is so lonely and disconnected.

According to a recent study by Cigna, loneliness is at epidemic levels in Generation Y.  Almost half of Generation Y reports that they don’t have friends.  These are the people in your online communities, and they aren’t engaging publicly. They are engaging in groups that they chose to join full of people they know. In groups where they don’t know people, they tend to watch and gather information rather than participate. There are many other interconnected issues behind why our society is so lonely. I’m sure we will see other studies published soon, each claiming to have explained one small piece of that puzzle. As we wait for the research, those of us who are leaders can make some small changes that will make a difference.

As you lead, do people see you as a friend, a rock thrower, or a coat holder?  

If you’ve been a rock thrower or a coat holder in the past and you want to see that perception change, here are some tips that might help.

  1. New people can be amazing. Be open to new friends and experiences.
  2. Judge slowly. Learn quickly.
  3. Recognize experience blindness. If you don’t know what this means, read the HBR article linked above. Refer to #2 frequently.
  4. Words can destroy people.  They can also build people and become bridges over differences. Choose to build people.
  5. Don’t tell stories that aren’t yours to share.
  6. Watch out for your own offense. If you’re offended, get quiet.
  7. Recognize your own power. Use your power to teach and to build.
  8. Lastly, if you’re leaving a trail of bodies behind you, you’re doing something wrong.

I want to spend the rest of my life bringing out the best in the people around me. Let’s go…

Pressing on,

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Jenn is the Founder and CEO of Cotton Babies. She holds an Executive MBA from Washington University. She was awarded Ernst & Young’s Entrepreneur of the Year award in the Emerging Category for the Central Midwest Region in 2011. Among many other awards, she recently received a 2017 YWCA Leader of Distinction Award for Entrepreneurship. Jenn holds many patents on various inventions in a number of different countries and is listed as one of 50 Missourians You Should Know. She is particularly fascinated by languages, chickens, and children (she has four) when she’s not reading economics journals.

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2 thoughts on “Loneliness and Social Engagement

  1. Well written Jenn. Continue to love and pray for you, your family and Cotton Babies.

    Would love to reconnect sometime when you have time.