Needs are Not Universal

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Although we have many needs in common, we don’t all need (or want) the same thing.
The traditional (Christian) Golden Rule: “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you” often fails miserably in my experience. I have a great need for honesty, and many people feel that honesty should always be diluted with kindness and made more palatable. I find this often opens the path to vagueness that allows the listener to accept a more comfortable near-truth that doesn’t let them deal with what’s causing them problems.

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I’m not advocating the use of honesty as a blunt instrument to hurt others, but we shouldn’t withhold information they need to deal with ongoing problems.Alternate versions suggest treating others as they want to be treated, but that’s not necessarily better. The parenting role illustrates this difference. It’s hard work to teach children chores, ethics, and other things they need to know, harder than just doing the work yourself. But if the parent doesn’t take on that extra work, the kids will lack important skills and tools they need for later in their lives. We force them to take medicine or shots when all they know is that it’s yucky, it hurts, or it’s scary, but we know that giving in to their preferences would be wrong. On the other hand, when it’s an acquaintance rather than a dependent, we can feel that that extra effort is not our responsibility; it’s easier on us to let them continue to be ignorant.

The medicine example is also a good one to illustrate that we don’t all have the same needs. Not everyone should “Take two aspirin and call me in the morning.” It may be harder to recognize with simple emotional needs (“Get two hugs and call my office for an appointment.” … not good for the person who’s hug-phobic.) One person needs quiet, another needs stimulation. People living in some areas need well-insulated, warm houses, in other regions folks need good ventilation. We simply sometimes forget to apply this to behavior. We need to remember to always assess the situation.

You may have noticed some time when one person thinks others are speaking too loudly, so they lower their voices to demonstrate what they think more appropriate volume; meanwhile the other people raise their voices in order to suggest that more volume is needed. These two responses can create a feedback loop, becoming more and more extreme to the distress of all involved. I expect your immediate thought is “Why don’t they just ask the other people to speak louder or more quietly?”; and you’d be right. But I also bet you can also think of several reasons why those involved might not want to “tell an acquaintance or stranger what to do”. Cultural norms vary so much, it’s often really difficult to guess what someone else might consider inappropriate, and being seen as rude is not unlikely. Still, communication is key, however challenging. The position of respecting that others have a reason for the way they do things, even if you can’t imagine what it is, is a good place to start.

Not that it helps in all situation, but there’s a wonderful book called How to be a Perfect Stranger that advises how to interact with those of other faiths at weddings, funerals and other services, giving a stranger an idea of what to expect. (It looks like I should get the most recent edition.) Even if you never need most of what’s in it, it’s wonderful to be reminded that what you take for granted is not what others do.
That’s the point. The universal need may be to be respected, but the ways of showing respect may differ from culture to culture. The things we were taught when we were so young that we don’t even remember learning it may leave us feeling uncomfortable when someone else looks at the world in a different way. But we can communicate, and we can learn from each other. We may just have to have a quick conversation with our two year old self first.

You’ve got this. Breathe. Expect good things.

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