How can I better relate to people of different ages?
August 13, 2008 3:58 PM   Subscribe

How can I better appreciate people of different ages? Different generations?

When I was in elementary school, students a year above or below were universally considered "The Other." They were impossibly cool, or lame, or stupid. Common experiences-- such as applying to college, and college itself-- made this phenomenon continue longer, albeit in lesser form. Understandable, right?

But I've found it unexpectedly difficult to get over these childhood practices and meet people of different ages with an open mind. Two examples:

1) "Mock the freshman" mentality toward people just a year or two younger: fun, and funny, for a short while, but ultimately unproductive.

2) "Glad I'm Not Old Like You" mentality towards people 10-30 years older, who have seemingly drastically different goals: settling down, having kids, enjoying lives of quiet suburban desperation...

So, in the first case, I'm missing out on some possible friends. In the second case, I'm not enjoying the company of possible coworkers, and I think my childish tendencies can be a bit exaggerated around older people.

Is this just something everyone grows out of? Or is there, you know, an herbal supplement I should buy or something?
posted by acidic to Human Relations (12 answers total) 2 users marked this as a favorite
You definitely will grow out of it eventually, but why wait that long? The best way to learn to appreciate people of different ages is to associate with them. Have lunch with coworkers that you normally wouldn't hang out with - grab a beer with them even. You'd be surprised how "normal" they are once you get to know them.
posted by The Light Fantastic at 4:19 PM on August 13, 2008

Do you find it necessary to mock people with different accents or skin colours or different levels of education or status? Revel in diversity, and when you find it, try and learn more about it. Every person has a story to tell. Make it your job to find out what that story is.

Here's something else, some people who are younger than you have had far more life experiences, and are wiser and more compassionate, but you don't know that when you meet them. Some people who are much older than you are, are incredibly up to date and adventurous, and you don't know that either. And some people who are boring and staid and grumpy have good reason to be that way.

I don't think you grow out of it, so much as choose not to participate. Like the stupid gender wars things popular radio loves to work with. Women do this, omg, men do that, wtf? Not true, such a generalisation.
posted by b33j at 4:20 PM on August 13, 2008

It's hard, and a lifetime goal of mine. I ride bikes with folks of all ages - what we have in common is a similar level of fitness. I'm 47 and generally wouldn't hang out with folks that are 27 or 67, but when we're rolling down the road and talking about food, wine, travel, books, art, music or literature the age differences don't seem to matter so much.
posted by fixedgear at 4:26 PM on August 13, 2008 [1 favorite]

Like so many other things, there isn't a quick fix. You have to be conscious of the judgements you are making and make an effort to see things differently. I believe that the only way to change any behavior is to maintain an awareness of it, and when you find yourself engaging in that behavior, you correct yourself.

Realize that these 'older' people were once younger like you, and that not all 'older' people are seeking to settle down, have kids, and live in the suburbs. Not my cup of tea, but I don't hold it against those who choose that lifestyle. At the same time, realize that if people choose to settle down, have kids, and live in the suburbs, that's their prerogative.

Like b33j said, you won't know what people are like until you meet them. Try to put yourself in the position of these other people. I have been in the position of being judged this way, and after people find out what I am like, many have told me that I surprise them. I may look a little Plain Jane or whatever, but I like to think that I have a lot of interesting life experiences and interests.

Sounds hokey, probably, but take people for who they are as people, not for their crunchy candy shell, or whatever lies on the outside.

And, FWIW, some of those people who live in the suburbs are kinda freaky....
posted by bolognius maximus at 4:55 PM on August 13, 2008

"old people" have different goals than you do now, but in 10-30 years many of the goals that you have will be what they have now. learn from their experiences. learn from their past experiences too. they've already lived through many of the experiences that you're living through right now, and they have a lot to teach you if you're willing to listen. plus, they ususally have some crazy story about "how things were back in the day"!

i personally find it harder to relate to younger people than older people, and that's getting more annoying as i get older. but i think the difference between 28 and 21 is much more than the difference between 38 and 31, so hopefully that'll kind of work itself out.
posted by misanthropicsarah at 4:56 PM on August 13, 2008

Listen to elderly people. If it bores you at the moment, store it up and remember it later when you can appreciate it. The past is a different country, and they are refugees who can never return.
posted by Countess Elena at 5:09 PM on August 13, 2008 [1 favorite]

Don't be judgmental. Don't judge a person based on a small set of facts (he's old, she's young, he's whatever) - wait to get a more complete story. Understand your opinion does not matter to most of these people, so disdaining them for what they are/are not will do nobody any good and just make you sound like an ass. You're no more superior to them than they are inferior to you.

Mostly, grow up. And I don't mean that in a harsh way, but I think you'll find as you get older that whether people have different goals than you or are in different stages of life than you really doesn't matter; what matters is how you treat people.

My philosophy for myself has always been "don't be an ass".
posted by pdb at 5:27 PM on August 13, 2008 [1 favorite]

I've never understood that mentality to begin with. This attitude really puts me in a foul mood...

And no, it's not something you "grow out of," which is a lazy attitude that assumes everything in life (particularly your personal problems projected onto the world) will fix themselves with zero effort. The excessive "me myself universe versus alien other" is the underlying principle to all the human problems in the world, sheesh. A perspective shift is a difficult thing. There is no herbal fix, no button to push, it requires real internal and external evaluation on an intellectual level that not everyone is capable of.

Practice empathy. Put yourself in others' situations--understand that responsibilities shift over one's life cycle, peoples' perspectives and opinions are legitimate both when their life experiences are limited and when they've lived eight decades through three wars. Of course, this is impossible to do for a lot of people because they simply lack that ability to experience empathy in the first place. A more practical avenue is to converse a lot, a lot, a lot about all sorts of topics in life, ask advice or for stories from elders, share experiences and such with juniors.

Perspective shifts are difficult to truly do, and I hope parents will teach their kids to avoid this sort of mentality that just creates adults who are short-sighted and unable to appreciate the rest of humanity. Ugh, I need to go play with fluffy bunnies...

I suppose recognizing that you have this attitude problem in the first place is a good start.
posted by Ky at 6:01 PM on August 13, 2008 [1 favorite]

Jonathan Swift's "Resolutions — When I Come to Be Old":

* Not to Marry a young Woman.
* Keep young Company unless they reely desire it.
* Be peevish or morose, or suspicious.
* Scorn present Ways, or Wits, or Fashions, or Men, or War, &c.
* Be fond of Children, or let them come near me hardly.
* Tell the same Story over and over to the same People.
* Be covetous.
* Neglect decency, or cleenlyness, for fear of falling into Nastyness.
* Be over severe with young People, but give Allowances for their youthfull follyes, and Weeknesses.
* Be influenced by, or give ear to knavish tatling Servants, or others.
* Be too free of advise nor trouble any but those that desire it.
* Desire some good Friends to inform me which of these Resolutions I break, or neglect, & wherein; and reform accordingly.
* Talk much, nor of my self.
* Boast of my former beauty, or strength, or favor with Ladyes, &c.
* Hearken to Flatteryes, nor conceive I can be beloved by a young woman.
* Be positive or opiniative.
* Sett up for observing all these Rules, for fear I should observe none.
posted by futility closet at 7:22 PM on August 13, 2008 [1 favorite]

One of my music professors in college told us this story about how his aunt loved Perry Como or some guy like that and he used to rag on him all the time, comparing him to "his" music (60's stuff like the Beatle's and Rolling Stones). He said what made him stop was her almost breaking down into tears one day becasue he made fun of one of her childhood songs. People like to hate on all that rap stuff these days but hey it's their generation's stuff, I don't know how this really applies to what you're talking about but I think the Who's "My Generation" says it all.
posted by BrnP84 at 7:25 PM on August 13, 2008

I believe that most people go through this to an extent, and I think you've hit the nail square on the head regarding the cause - from age 4 or 5 onwards, just about everything you do (outside of your family) is with people almost exactly the same age as you. If any adults are ever involved, it's in a position of authority or similar - teachers, coaches, lecturers etc.

This ingrains itself, until you end up with some kind of unconscious model in your head that the only people you can or should legitimately socialise with are your direct age-peers. There's also the fact that you have generally similar cultural references & are at the exact same stage in life.

(as an aside, I find it hilarious when the high school graduates head off for "schoolies week" - a week or two of partying on the Gold Coast after the final exams - and any interlopers who graduated even a year before are derogatively called "toolies", from "too old". i think to myself, they're all bloody teenagers! nobody other then the kids themselves could ever tell them apart!)

Anyway, I think you can & do grow out of it once you leave that artificial, cocooned college society & start working with people of all ages & walks of life. It helps if you can check yourself from thinking that you're some kind of special & radical snowflake, by realising that your older colleagues are watching your antics with thoughts that are a mixture of "aw, how sweet, i remember being like that once" and "get off my lawn!"

As for appreciating much younger people, I'm still working on that one, but remembering that you were once in their shoes helps a lot, but it's still very patronising.
posted by UbuRoivas at 9:00 PM on August 13, 2008 [1 favorite]

A quick afterthought: another cause of that very age-stratified mentality common to teenagers & young adults is a simple function of the mathematical process of ageing: one extra year to a 10yo is 10% of their entire life. For a 20yo, it's 5%, for a 50yo it's 2% and so on.

And the changes in physical development & capabilities, knowledge and maturity follow a similar kind of pattern, such that, say, a 17yo can feel significantly advanced compared with a 16yo, but nowhere near the standard of an 18yo.

Once again, this is the basic mental model that we go through from before we even know how to read, so it's understandable if it becomes part of your general outlook on life.

I'll suggest that once you've checked off all the "quantitative" kinds of milestones (finishing high school, getting the right to drink, drive & vote, graduating uni etc), that kind of "upward" growing is replaced by a more "outward" growing, so it's less about people being perceived as ahead of you or behind you, but simply being different than you - following other interests & paths, having often fascinating histories & experiences that are wholly strange to you.

A deeper appreciation of that reality (replacing the rigid stratification of your developmental years) is an almost inevitable contributor towards - and result & sign of - maturity.
posted by UbuRoivas at 10:06 PM on August 13, 2008

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