Three things in human life are important. The first is to be kind. The second is to be kind. And the third is to be kind.
A year ago, attending a reception at the Alliance Française in New York City (that turned out would be my last social event before COVID), I found myself seated alone at a cafe table. A gentleman escorted two elegant women, polished sophisticates of Gallic heritage and indeterminate age, to sit with me, announcing that I had just been graced by the two most important persons in the room.
The lovely grande dame that sat between us began flirting. I fell instantly under her spell. We chit-chatted for ten minutes in the way that people nonchalantly volley tennis balls socially, testing each other’s skill without playing the game in earnest.
We were waiting for a talk given by the French philosopher, Raphael Ligogier, and his American thought-partner, Mark Greene, on the subject of the bad behavior of men and the redefinition of masculine norms that is underway. My new acquaintances expressed some reservations about the topic, informing me that they had attended only because as supporters of the Institute, they feared that no one would show up.
Nothing could have been further from the truth. The room had been prepared to seat about 30 attendees. As the discussion got started, I counted over 200 people who had crammed themselves into a space now filled wall-to-wall with folding chairs.
A lively, transatlantic exchange of views between an erudite European intellectual and a pragmatic, American evangelist ensued. Both men were convinced that 21st Century males need to make a shift. After their conversation, many women rose to speak during a Q&A that showed no sign of ending. Most of the men in the room remained silent.
Eventually, the discussion ended, and realizing that I committed the unforgivable faux pas of neglecting the women at our table, I turned my attention to my doubles partner, and asked, “What do you make of this?”
Perplexed, she pursed her lips and frowned. “But what is zis all about?” she asked rhetorically. “It’s simple, no? Be a gentleman, have some manners, be kind. C’est tout. The rest will sort itself out,” she sniffed.
Her petite blonde friend agreed. “That’s it.”
I know this sounds like the last gasp of a traditional male, but I uttered a sigh of relief. Finally, I was talking to someone who spoke my language. The subtext was, “Why do we have to make this so complicated?”
The irony is that I have spent the past two years deconstructing the many ways in which men need to reframe their identities, and I actually do believe that behavioral change of any form, personal or societal, is a very complex undertaking. Nonetheless, the certainty of these two women, who were willing to believe in the basic goodness of men after so much experience on the planet with us, seemed encouraging.
Shortly after this event, I was introduced to Jaclyn Lindsay, CEO of kindness.org, a non-profit working with the University of Oxford and Harvard to measure the impact that even the smallest acts of kindness have across a surprising range of outcomes. Her research associates had even begun exploring the impact of kindness on corporate financial performance, not unlike the studies of environmental, social and corporate governance policies in the early 2000’s. With over 400 citizen scientists and data on nearly two million acts of kindness, their findings are directly relevant to navigating the COVID crisis and the challenges that men and women now face.
These back-to-back encounters with strong, wise women triggered a startling revelation that continues to resonate in these times. The current focus on defining “new” rules between men and women, in the workplace, on the street, at home, seems to me to be an incomplete answer to the current crisis of the broken social contracts between men and women.
Changing the rules of engagement is like treating the symptom instead of the disease. Indeed, the attention placed on behavior modification, and the threat of litigation to enforce compliance, may have even produced unintended consequences, as Peggy Orenstein revealed in Boys & Sex, we now have a “woke” generation of Gen Z men that pretend to be responsible, relational males that still exploit women.
My new friends were suggesting that while revising “the rules” is a necessary step in our journey to heal the uneasy divisions that we experience, a second line of action is required if the new rules are to be successful. A change of heart is essential in both men and women. It’s foundational to the common decency that a true gentlemen exhibits in a relationship of mutual respect.
I know it sounds old-fashioned, but could it be that the two women seated beside me that evening are right? Could a fundamental component of the new rules of engagement be the Golden Rule? And the rest will take care of itself?
I suspect that the ladies’ disbelief at the proceedings that evening is a bit of feminine wisdom for us all.
This post was previously published on Medium.
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