Dr. Empathy – Or How I Stopped Judging and Learned to Love the Millennial.

I talk a lot of smack about people who dis millennials or “kids today”. My low opinion of that attitude is well documented. What I don’t talk about is if I sometimes struggle with my perception of youth or youth culture, and the answer is: I do.  “You little twerp” has crossed my mind on numerous occasions. In some instances it’s because I’ve interacted with a little twerp (being a kid doesn’t exempt one from being a jerk), but more often it’s because I have a set of expectations that aren’t being met. This is a story about one of those times.

Before I left my previous job, I made small bags of holiday candy and gave one to everybody. For the people who weren’t there, I just left it on their desk. They went over well – almost everybody said they enjoyed their treat, or thanked me for thinking of them. The gratification filled me with holiday cheer. Except that one kid, the senior college student who worked for the vice chancellor. I left his bag on his desk when he wasn’t there and that little shit never once even acknowledged that I gave him anything!

Ugh, rude! How dare he ignore my hand crafted gesture of holiday goodness! What a little twerp! Boy, if I was still going to be working here, I’d never give him anything again!

I had those thoughts for two days. The cognitive dissonance was really fucking with me. I couldn’t reconcile my affinity for millennials with the voice in my head that kept telling me he was rude and (Zeus help me) “entitled”. What follows is a transcript of the conversation I had with that Voice.

Voice: This is why people call millennials entitled, you know. He doesn’t even think he has to say thank you.

Me: I know! Although, maybe he wasn’t brought up to have those kind of manners.

V: So? He’s an adult living in the adult world and that shit is basic. Ignorance is not an excuse in adulthood.

Me: Exactly! It’s just basic good manners to say thank you.

V: Besides, we’ve heard him say it before – it’s not like he doesn’t know how. Remember when you brought donuts and hot cocoa? He thanked you twice!

Me: I remember. I made some kind of joke about bringing them and he was laughing and talking with the rest of us. Um, actually…

V: Right! Now here is, just ignoring you. So rude. He should be acknowledging your gift! That’s why you gave it to him!

Me: Wait, what? No, that’s not why…

V: But didn’t you feel awesome when everybody else specifically came to you and thanked you for your gift? Didn’t it make you feel all glowy and validated? Isn’t that why you gave them gifts??

Me: (whispering) Sort of?

V: Of course it is. So why don’t you just march right over there and take away his gift?

Me: Because that would be horrible! And rude! You don’t give gifts with the expectation that the recipient is going to make you feel good about it! You give gifts because you want the recipient to have it.

V: Are you sure? Because I bet you’re related to a lot of people who would disagree.

Me: This is not the time for that conversation. Look, hold up. The point here is that I gave him a gift and I feel bad that he didn’t make me feel better about giving it to him.

V: And you’re not taking it back because…?

Me: Because if it comes down to it and I can only have one or the other, I’d rather he have the gift than I have my thank you.

V: But that doesn’t excuse his behavior!

Me: Only if I’m operating on a very specific mode of social etiquette.

V: Everyone operates in that mode.

Me: No, they don’t. If I really wanted him to acknowledge my gift, I could go right over there and ask him if he likes it. Better still, I could have waited until he was present to offer it to him, instead of sneaking it onto his desk like a reverse thief. Santa leaves presents in the dark when nobody is looking and nobody thanks him! Maybe he’s respecting MY boundaries? Ever think of that?! Maybe he thought I left it for him because I didn’t WANT to interact. Otherwise, wouldn’t I have said something by now? You know, millennials are really sensitive to introversion and boundaries on personal interaction, it’s part of what makes them so great. Maybe all this time I’ve been listening to you call him rude, and from his perspective, he’s being super respectful!

Voice: (a little quieter now) It still feels rude.

Me: Yes, it does. Because I’m functioning on an unspoken set of rules of social interaction that date back to the Victorian era and I’m too full of myself to just go over there and talk to him about it. That’s my failing, not his.

And that’s when the voice shut up, my cognitive dissonance disappeared and I felt even better about giving gifts at work.

I’m not saying social niceties aren’t valuable or that we should all abandon expressions of gratitude. What I’m saying here is that sometimes empathy is hard work. Sometimes anger feels better than understanding, especially when that understanding only comes after a lengthy struggle. Sometimes overcoming social programming and what is “normal” is a lot of goddamn work and we don’t want to do it. I have found however, that it is nearly always worth it.leftridgepick-strangelove-650

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