Hold on to your undergarments. I’m going to explain an Abraham Lincoln quote through the lens of Mean Girls. Yes, you did read that right. Mean Girls, the 2004 American teenage comedy film.
At last, I understand Mean Girls. Last night I was watching Mean Girls (with my wife, who provided running commentary) and it all made sense. I’ve randomly seen fragments of it many times, but never end to end.
The basic plot (just in case…)
- An individual joins a new organisation (a school) as an unknown outsider.
- They (Cady) are trying to make sense of things and fit in.
- The first people to ‘help’ are also ‘Outsiders’, on the fringes of the mainstream.
- The Outsiders warn Cady about the powerful ruling group, The Plastics.
- The Plastics have a range of bad behaviours they use to maintain their power.
- Under the cover of tackling bad behaviours, Cady successfully infiltrates The Plastics.
- Through that process of ‘getting to know’ the The Plastics, Cady becomes ‘one of them’.
- Cady eventually replaces The Plastics ‘Queen Bee’ and everything goes horribly wrong.
- A document is made public (The Burn Book) exposing the bad behaviour of everyone in the school.
- Mayhem ensues. Cady gets into massive trouble.
- Out of the mayhem a new status quo is established.
- Now people respect each other, value difference and diversity and don’t do the bad things they used to.
- And… if someone does start behaving badly, there’s the option of pushing them in front of a bus!
It’s a film worth watching, just so you can smile knowledgeably if someone in your social group uses one of its quotes. I now know the cultural significance of, “I’m kind of psychic. I have a fifth sense. It’s like I’ve got ESPN or something”.
Old stories that never go away. The plot of Mean Girls might feel familiar? The theme of how the differences between people shape what happens between us has been around forever. And it happens everywhere. A high-school film is perfect to amplify behaviours and impact, but it is just as common in other places, like work. People are different, and some don’t like each other. It’s one of those ‘human’ things. This is where Abraham Lincoln comes in…
“I do not like that man, I must get to know him better.” The quote is attributed to Abraham Lincoln, although I am struggling to find the actual source*. Just as relevant is “I do not destroy my enemies when I make them my friends”. You can find the sources in this article on Quote Investigator which talks about the power of redemptive love.
Its also worth a look at this HBR article, Leadership Lessons from Abraham Lincoln. It describes some of the things he did to rebuild relationships after the American Civil War. One of his significant steps was to appoint people to Cabinet that were opponents and competitors for the job of President. A practice from over 150 years ago that is just as relevant today.
From a very practical perspective I’m trying to embrace the advice from Lincoln. There are some people I encounter who I just don’t like. Lots of that will be my personal biases, both conscious and unconscious. Some of it will be down to things they have done to trigger me – actual bad behaviours.
The point of the Lincoln quote is that one way for me to get over my dislike is to get the know that person better. If I understand them more deeply, the reasons for my ‘dislike’ should be more understandable. If it is my bias, assumption or ignorance on my part – by finding out more about them, I should be able to do something about it. It ought to be as straightforward as that. Easy to say, hard to do. It needs me to step beyond my comfortably held view that ‘I do not like that person…’. This stuff isn’t easy.
There are however risks to talking this approach. What if you become ‘changed’ as part of the process, just like Cady in Mean Girls. What if these are genuinely badly behaved people, and you end up doing the same?
You need to be aware of what is happening, which I wrote about ages ago in “If you sup with the Devil, use a very long spoon”. Like I said, this stuff isn’t easy, but essential in a world where everything seems to be getting more polarized. Sometimes it feels like the easiest thing to do is define your self by declaring the people you don’t like – just have a quick look at some Twitter bios.
Make your enemies your friends. I think I might return to this idea, but in the meanwhile have a ponder on this – The Human Library (link here). This is a practice from Denmark where you can go to a library and instead of borrowing a book, you borrow a person. That person sits with you and tells you about their life, so that you can understand another persons perspective and life experience. This might not be totally radical if you enjoy a conversation with random strangers on public transport or in the pub. But, in these days of restrictions on social contact and global turmoil it might be a useful substitute for getting to know people better, and warming us up to make friends of our enemies? Worth a go I’d suggest.
So, What’s the PONT?
- Why we dislike someone is a complex equation. Biases (conscious and unconscious), social pressure, what they do to others or have done directly to you all play a part.
- Getting a better understanding the person is a good first step. Work out why you feel that way, and what you might do about it. But it’s not an easy or instinctive step for most of us.
- Which is why I recommend watching Mean Girls, and immersing yourself in the quotes and practice of Abraham Lincoln (but try not to mix them up).
Footnote*. This the best I can do on the source of the ‘I do not like that man. I must get to know him better’ – picture below. Apparently the quote is on page 28 of ‘The costs of administering reparation for work injuries in Illinois’. (1952) by Alfred Fletcher Conard. Well I had a look,and couldn’t find it. Which sort of proves that meme about not taking quotes you find on the internet at face value.