Are Americans Really Mean?

Posted by Dan Bachicha

Nov 28, 2017 1:10:00 PM

Inspired from an unlikely place, one MST expert reflects on the value of kindness 

“You’re mean to each other.” That's what he said, and it shocked me. Maybe because it's true, and I didn't want to believe it. Or maybe I've been too ignorant to see it and just didn't want to believe it. Or maybe I was just embarrassed by the simple truth of it. Whatever it was, it caused me to think about those words for a long time. That’s definitely not the perception I want others to have.

Those were the words of a taxi driver as he drove me from the airport to my hotel upon my arrival in a foreign country.

“There are many things I like about your country,” he said, “but I would never live there because you're mean to each other.” He was a simple man with a simple view of the world giving a simple description of the way he thinks people treat each other in my country. In light of recent incidents of violence reported in many parts of the country, I can see his point of view. The anger and hatred displayed in these incidents is shocking. It's pervasive and frequent enough that the problem should be taken seriously.

Does media have too much sway on negativity?

It made me wonder, though, if the media influences (and is influenced by) what happens in society, then how might our society be different if 80 percent of what is reported in the media is about the many good things that take place every day instead of 80 percent being about the violence and crime that is reported? Could the effect be like the positive changes our families experience in Multisystemic Therapy (MST) when we leverage and reinforce strengths in their ecology? If there were more frequent and consistent media and social reinforcement of neighbors helping neighbors, would our children learn to value altruism? Would families learn to value giving and receiving social support? And as a result, would there be less violence and crime in our society? If, as the saying goes, we are what we eat, then perhaps this is food for thought. 

A recent example of positive action comes to mind. When Hurricane Harvey hit coastal Texas, the greater MST community responded to meet the needs of its own. An expert in the Midwest was watching the images of Houston in the news and was moved to do something. He and his teams wanted to help in a tangible way. When they learned that a therapist in Houston had sustained significant damage to her home and lost her car in the flooding that followed Harvey, they asked for a list of items she needed and worked together to provide for those needs. They mailed supplies, as well as gift cards for restaurants and retail outlets, directly to Houston. They sent these things to people they had never met, to people they may never meet face to face. 

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Being nice to siblings

I remember as a child my mom saying don't be mean to your sister and brother. I was supposed to share and not selfishly withhold what I had. It meant that I should consider their needs and not act selfishly. It meant being polite and respectful in my language and interactions. It meant resolving differences and not being self-centered and self-serving. 

I believe that because I learned not to be mean, but to be “nice” to my siblings, I learned also to be “nice” to others. It became a value engrained in my lifestyle. I have no doubt that the opposite would also be true, that had I been allowed to be mean to my siblings, I would be mean to others, as well.

But that's me. I consider myself to be one of the lucky ones. But what about my taxi driver’s view of my country? Are we a mean society? If we really hold up the mirror of accountability, what will we see? What do our behaviors say about us to those who observe from a distance? As a country that has a great deal of influence in the world, do our morals, values and behaviors reflect high standards in our everyday interactions or have we become a mean society that has lost the respect of its citizens and the citizens of other countries?

Maybe we owe it to ourselves, our children, our neighbors and communities to take stock of how our actions reflect our values. Maybe we can make some good decisions about how to stop being mean to one another and start being the kind of society that leads the world to be kinder. Maybe it starts with making help available to change one family at a time. I imagine my next taxi driver saying, “I wish I could live in your country because you are so kind to one another.” Change is possible. We become what we think about. Let's make this food for thought.

Topics: Juvenile Justice Reform