My New Year's resolutions are rarely made the first of January. Typically they follow the recognition of an undesirable habit I wish to change. Sometimes the behavior or example of others leads to examination of my own interaction. Since that can happen anytime, I make New Year's resolutions year-round.
The impetus for my most recent resolution was an incident on a holiday cruise. Following participation in one of the numerous shipboard entertainments, our "team" was preparing to leave the lounge when a couple stopped to chat.
Only it wasn't a chat - it was a rant. The couple (whom we didn't know) were members of the winning team. Our congratulations were lost in the stream of complaints and criticism leveled at everyone and everything associated with the cruise. Beginning with the staff member who had conducted the contest, through members of the cruise director's staff, the itinerary, the shore excursions, the food, the entertainment and ending with the roughness of the Atlantic Ocean, they didn't waste a kind word on anything or anyone.
When they finally moved on, our team stood in stunned silence. Then someone asked, "Why did they come on the cruise?" It appeared they were determined not to enjoy anything.
I thought about the incident often over the next few days. The couple had been in perfect sync - one picking up with complaints while the other drew breath before returning to the fray. It occurred to me that was their usual way of interacting as a couple - perhaps not in all situations, but certainly in the current one.
People develop a style of interacting with different people and in different situations. Some people joke or trade insults with close friends, but change their way of interacting with coworkers, family or casual acquaintances. Another set of behaviors comes into play with strangers or in situations which are new or slightly uncomfortable. Between or among some friends, the typical interaction may consist of criticizing or making fun of surroundings or people.
Most of us have observed children showing off in new situations or trying to get attention. As we get older and feel unsure or uncomfortable in a situation, perhaps uncertain how to act or what to expect, some of us engage in criticizing or putting others down - a grown-up form of showing off. Fortunately, trying to make others look bad in an effort to make ourselves look superior rarely works.
Besides childhood reminders about saying please, thank you and excuse me, I recall the admonition "if you can't say something nice don't say anything at all."
Perhaps that is too simplistic, but being polite is never inappropriate. Gratuitous criticism, complaints and negativity, especially in an unfamiliar situation, does not accomplish anything positive - unless the person wishes to be avoided by others and not invited again.
The habit of finding fault as a way of interacting - just "chatting" - is not good for us. It may provide short-term feelings of inclusion or superiority, but it does not help us develop good attitudes toward others or learn tolerance or patience. It does not help us see the good in others. Instead, we become fault finders.
If you find yourself seeking something to criticize or sneer at just to share an unkind comment with someone else or to assure yourself of personal superiority, just stop. Instead, find at least one thing to admire, praise or look forward to. It may take an effort to reverse a pattern of behavior and establish a different one. But friends won't wonder what you say about them to others, you won't feel guilty about mean comments, and you may enjoy chats with friends more.
If negativity is a pattern you have adopted with a specific friend, tell them you are trying to be more positive and ask them to help you notice good things. If it is really hard to stop the criticism, try finding three good things for every negative one!
The apostle Paul, in his letter to the Philippians, directed them to think on those things which are lovely, pure, virtuous, of good report, or praiseworthy. (Philip. 4:8) That list is full of positive things and heeding his counsel does not leave room for us to look for negative things.
So, my first New Year's resolution - actually made in January this year - is to not let feelings of awkwardness or uncertainty in a situation lead me to criticize.
My second resolution is to remember that we are all children of God and need to feel loved. Positive comments and encouragement are of far greater value to my fellowmen and leave me less likely to feel remorse or embarrassment than unjust or unsolicited criticism.
Glenna M. Christensen is a member of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.
The Idaho Statesman's weekly faith column features a rotation of writers from many different faiths and perspectives.