What are the behaviors of a mensch?
January 2, 2011 10:44 PM   Subscribe

“We judge others by their behavior. We judge ourselves by our intentions.” What behaviors communicate to others that we care about them and the world in general?

I try to be a good person, but I sometimes miss the mark. One of my goals this year is to transform my intention to be a good person into tangible actions and behaviors which communicate that intention to the larger world.

I'm particularly interested in hearing from people who specifically struggled with this point but were able to take concrete steps to change.
posted by Deathalicious to Human Relations (13 answers total) 43 users marked this as a favorite
You might be interested in the conversation going on in this thread. The idea behind your quotation isn't that we need to do better at communicating our intentions. It's that no matter what we do, others won't know what's going on in our heads; all they have to go on is our behavior. So if, for example, you can't go to your friend's birthday party because you have to work late, you'll know how much you wanted to be there and how your awful boss would fire you if you went and how your not going pains you. All she'll know is that you weren't at her party, and she may assume that if you really cared about her, you'd have found a way to be there. There isn't really a way to bridge that gap, because we can't get inside one another's heads. All we can do is try to communicate our thoughts and feelings to people we care about, and hope that they love us enough to understand that we can't always live up to our ideals. And we can try to keep in mind that other people are, just like us, doing the best they can.
posted by decathecting at 11:38 PM on January 2, 2011

Sorry for not understanding, but what do you mean by "communicate that intention"?

Are you asking about whether you want others to KNOW that your actions and behaviors are from good intentions?

Or are you asking about what actions you can actually take to be a better person, regardless of how others may perceive it?
posted by The ____ of Justice at 11:54 PM on January 2, 2011

decathecting is describing the Fundamental Attribution Error.
posted by XhaustedProphet at 1:51 AM on January 3, 2011

Well, as far as 'actions that communicate [the] intention [to be a good person]', 'just do it' comes to mind. What is that you want to do as part of being a better person? Do that. And then people will look at your actions and think, hey, what a good person!

If there are specific ills or a bad reputation/history that you want to overcome, that can also be helped by telling people that you're trying to work on being a better person; that will give them a framework to understand your new actions in. But without the new actions it's not much good. And as has been said, the quote describes the fundamental attribution error - you know that you're only rude to the barista because of the awful day you've been having, but the barista just thinks you're an ass.
posted by Lady Li at 2:24 AM on January 3, 2011

Best answer: In the above example, you could correct the barista's impression by saying, "I'm really sorry to have been so rude just then. Of course, it's nothing to do with you. Here, have an extra-large tip."

By not talking about the awful day that led you to be rude to the barista, you keep the focus on your responsibility rather than on any excuses you might have been planning to make (if you have an ongoing conversation with the barista, it might come out later, but now isn't a good time for that). And you back up your words with compensatory actions (extra-large tip).
posted by tel3path at 3:19 AM on January 3, 2011 [6 favorites]

Best answer: What are the behaviors of a mensch? [...] What behaviors communicate to others that we care about them and the world in general?

Open doors for others -- literally and figuratively. When you open a door, don't just dive through it and let it swing shut; hold it open for others to get through, even if that means you get in line behind them. Every time you find an opportunity, share it. Never discard an opportunity you could pass on to others. Tell people about job openings, good deals at shops, good interest rates, good strategies, good books, lovely places. Introduce people to each other. Walk inexperienced people through things the first time.

Share burdens of others -- literally and figuratively. Carry groceries, push stuck cars, offer rides. And listen to people.
posted by pracowity at 3:46 AM on January 3, 2011 [23 favorites]

Best answer: Oh, and get a copy of Miss Manners' Guide to Excruciatingly Correct Behaviour and also start reading her columns.
posted by tel3path at 4:01 AM on January 3, 2011 [2 favorites]

Best answer: As I get older I see more and more the wisdom of Woody Allen's, "90% of life is just showing up." *

If you show up where you said you'd be, if you do what you said you'd do no matter how miserable you feel, and if you do that day after day, attending class, going to your job, being with your family, even if you screw up while you are there, you are showing love and respect for other people. They see that and know that, they will call you a good person and forgive you when you fail.

*(He actually said, "80% of success is just showing up" but the hive mind in its wisdom made it better. [See "greed is good" "play it again, Sam" or umpteen other examples.])
posted by mono blanco at 4:41 AM on January 3, 2011 [13 favorites]

Best answer: It was really an eye-opening moment for me when I learned that a lot of what makes a person agreeable or charming or likeable were actually things that could be learned, not things you had to be born knowing. You see this a lot in nerd communities where some people are good at manners/etiquette and some are not and then the mannerly ones are like "hey I just LEARNED this, I'm not like this naturally..." I think for people who are cerebral in whatever fashion it can be tough to get outside your own head and make an effort to put your own thoughts aside and try to connect with other people.

So, the short answer is that etiquette and manners are ways in which you indicate that you respect other people. It's sort of a shorthand "hey I'm playing by the rules" indicator which is calming to some people, reassuring to others and required by still others. This goes hand in hand with understanding that if someone is lording etiquette over you [bitching at you for using the wrong fork or making fun of you for what you're wearing] that's really their faux pas, not yours. The goal of this sort of thing is to make everyone happy and relaxed, not turn it into yet another contest to measure people by. So for starters, manners. Say please and thank you and hold doors open.

As a nerdier type myself, I try to take this a little farther by doing dress-up stuff for work and social events. I have a nice group of co-workers and friends who would be okay with me showing up wearing nearly anything, but being clean, decently dressed, putting on earrings/necklaces, putting my hair up, whatever, is a way to show "hey I'm taking this seriously" which again serves a social purpose, even if you're more comfortable with jeans and a t-shirt. Again, you don't have to feel oppressed by this, but it's a nice way to indicate "hey I made an effort" and not just "hey I thought about making an effort" which is I think what you're going for.

Other small things that I think go along these lines

- write paper thank you notes, always, for everything [except getting thank you notes, that's nuts]. They are never unappreciated and people get less and less nice mail lately.
- offer to help people move or drive them to the airport, always. The older people get the less they take you up on this, but having someone offer this sort of thing is great.
- offer sincere compliments. This doesn't have to be weird or creepy but just "hey that haircut looks nice" or "you did a great job on these handouts" If you're thinking a nice thing about someone else, just tell them, people like that in most cases.
- like tel3path says, sometimes indicating that whatever your mood is is NOT the fault of the person you're with is a way to make them not think you're upset with them. Sometimes you can't help being moody, brooding or introspective, but this is your problem to manage, not your companions'
- try to be positive. Not in a chrpy "isn't everything great!" way, but just in a "hey there are things I like and I'd like to share them" way. When you are talking to other people, have good/interesting things to say and don't be that person who always complains about work/Obama/wintertime.
- be good to yourself in the same way, reducing your own stress levels makes you more able to handle minor setbacks without it becoming a thing. And sometimes you get a lot of mileage from just being the well-rested person at the stressful event.

I know it can seem a little like scorekeeping, but my rule with myself is that there's no social "credit" for thinking nice thoughts or thinking about doing something nice for someone, there's only credit gained when you actually do the thing. So try to push more ideas out of the "in your own head" arena and into real life.
posted by jessamyn at 8:05 AM on January 3, 2011 [33 favorites]

Best answer: This isn't for everyone, but if you're not good at remembering names and personal details, those are skills that can be learned, and they're a great way to communicate that you care about people. I made a lot of progress with names when I started repeating the name after I heard it ("nice to meet you, John"), and consciously trying to pay attention at that moment. For people you already know, it'll make a difference if you remember that the last time you talked they were trying to buy a house, or their sister had a baby, or they had a bad cold, or whatever. This is one I could still get a lot better at, but I suspect it's a similar problem of teaching your brain to pay attention at the right time.
posted by jhc at 11:09 AM on January 3, 2011 [1 favorite]

Seconding jessamyn's comments. What a grown-up. What a mensch. You know what I mean.
posted by fivesavagepalms at 1:23 PM on January 3, 2011 [1 favorite]

Best answer: Everyone misses the mark sometimes. To me, the sign of a person that's putting forth effort to be "good" is the willingness to apologize--a really-for-real apology that acknowledges the error one has made and asks forgiveness. A true apology shows that you're putting someone else first and thinking about how your behavior affects them. Good luck; what a positive goal!!
posted by epj at 1:34 PM on January 3, 2011 [1 favorite]

Response by poster: Thank you everyone for your answers! I was specifically looking for the actions and behaviors of good, friendly, and kind people. Looking to ettiquette and manners is a good start. I can do this!

I should send you all written thank you notes (in the spirit of the question). I hope this comment is sufficient.
posted by Deathalicious at 3:22 PM on January 3, 2011

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