Having a Real Impact, Not Just a Virtual One

When I was a little girl, probably about 8 years old, my friend and I were running around in the grocery store, completely oblivious to our surroundings and the people in those surroundings.  We were tearing through the aisles laughing loudly in a fun, wild bubble of our own, when suddenly from outside of our bubble a man spoke to my friend.  He was calm but very commanding, so much so that he got our undivided, awed attention.  He said to her in a kind, appreciative voice, “Thank you so very much for going behind me instead of running in front of me when I was looking at the items on the shelf.  I really appreciate it, just as much as I appreciate it when people say “Excuse me” if they do have to go in front of me while I shop.”  He said nothing to me, who had run right in front of him, and I was mortified.  I’d had no concept that I was impacting anyone negatively because no one had ever said anything to me, or had even looked at me, really.  I wanted to be like my friend from that day forward.  This man had a powerful impact on me: in the grocery, I have never since been able to pass between someone and the grocery wall without either going behind them or saying “Excuse me” if I have no other place to go.  My children have been taught to do the same.  If you’ve ever shopped at a grocery just before Thanksgiving, you might appreciate the behavior that man was advocating for when he spoke to us.

This man could have ignored us and then complained to other people his age about “kids these days” who don’t have any respect for anyone.  If he had done so, neither I nor my friend would have learned about our impact and our behavior would remain unchanged.  He could have shouted at me and I would have run away from him in fear.  He could have berated me and called me a name, and I might feel some shame but I still wouldn’t know what I did wrong.  He could have told me that what I had done that had upset him, and given that I was 8, I probably would not have had the capacity for empathy that one grows into as they get older.  I might have changed my behavior, but it would be coming from a fear of getting in trouble more than a desire to do the right thing.  This man really knew something about kids.  When he told my friend how she had positively impacted him, I wanted to be her.  I wanted to have that sort of impact on him.  I tried to have that impact on everyone I ever passed at a grocery store from then on, and I really appreciate it in a way I might not when others treat me with the same respect he was asking for.

This man is on my mind today because the word “impact” has been on my mind in a big way lately.  We  have gotten to a place in the world where many people do not feel like they have an impact on things, on each other.  When you don’t feel like you have an impact on anyone, on the world around you, you start to feel invisible.  If you are invisible, you might think that nothing you do matters, since no one can see you.  If you feel like you have no positive impact, that you are invisible to others who are hurting you, you can feel quite helpless and stuck.  If you feel that you have no negative impact on others, you will keep doing things that hurt others without knowing it.  The person who feels that they have no positive impact might get angrier and angrier until they blow up at the person who has never been told what their negative impact is.

Until that man spoke to us in the grocery store, my friend and I felt invisible; no one was acting like they could see us, so we could run and laugh and do whatever we wanted in the store because nobody seemed to care.  If that man had not taken the time to speak to us, he might have continued to be invisible to us.  Back then, if there had been cellphones and social media, he might have gotten on Facebook or Twitter to say something about the rude kids who’d just run past.  He’d have spread his belief that we were hopelessly inconsiderate to others who feel the same way, and we would have no idea.  Others who related to him would possibly bond online about kids these days and then would see us or others like us as unreachable, inconsiderate little brats.  Even without social media, he could have just said nothing to us, then gone home to complain about us to his family, but he chose to speak to us and by doing so had a great impact that continues to have power almost forty years later.

I’ve been thinking quite a bit about balance on the Internet and how the lack of balance in the use of social media has created an illusion of having an impact while robbing many of us of a real impact.  Using the example of the man in the store, imagine that the man at the store had said nothing to the kids who’d upset him.  Instead, he got on Facebook and posted about what had just happened and maybe he threw in some opinions about “kids these days.”  Let’s say that all of his friends who are about the same age as him feel the same way, and they click on all those little reaction buttons and post tons of comments.  He’s had an impact!  He wrote something on Facebook and his “community” responded!  There are smiley faces, there are frowny faces, and there is a conversation.  The problem with this is that the kids are not included in this conversation and have no idea that they had this impact that has now grown into a firestorm.  In fact, now when those kids do something else awful, he knows how to get more reactions on Facebook about how awful the kids are, and he will get more responses, and he’ll feel like he’s having an impact somewhere.  The kids don’t change, but now there might be an increased feeling of hostility that these kids are meeting up with in public.  And this man’s community has now bonded over the kids’ bad behavior, so now they are a bit dependent on the kids being awful in order to keep their feelings of togetherness going.  Not only are the kids not getting an opportunity to see what their impact has been, an opportunity to grow and change, but now they are expected to stay stuck in their awful behavior so people on Facebook can come together and complain about them.

Social media can be a wonderful tool to bring people together, but when it is out of balance with reality, it can become a weapon that divides.  Next time you are about to post on Facebook about someone who has upset you or is not like you in the real world, whether you are a Gen-Xer complaining about a millennial, or a small town American complaining about an Elite or vice versa, or you are one white liberal complaining about some other white liberal who is doing it wrong, or if you are someone who feels ignored by that person in the weight room who is talking to someone while sitting on the bench; whoever you are, try this challenge I am about to throw down.  If you are impacted by someone in the real world, whether positively or negatively, resist the urge to bypass letting them know their impact.  Notice yourself composing your Facebook or other social media post about the person who is in front of you and, if it is safe to do so, muster up a commanding presence and speak to that person calmly and respectfully about their impact on you.  Then, if it works out in a good way, or even if it doesn’t, go ahead and share on social media what it was like to do this, and maybe it will inspire others to do the same.  If everybody does this, we will all have a real impact.

For more on having an impact, go here.

Share if you are inspired.