Suzette Martinez Standring: Learning lessons about gentle diplomacy
I think of myself as sensitive. By that I mean I can rein in my mouth even though my mind bubble is bursting with sarcastic commentary. Yes, I do get my dander up occasionally but a bludgeon is not typically in my bag.
But even if I’ve managed to sheath the sharp edge of my tongue, there’s room to grow kinder. Having a gentle spirit is not just about controlling involuntary facial twitches.
And just when I think I’m Ms. Gentle Kindly Plus, I run up against the real deal. I’m a Visigoth compared to my Japanese sister-in-law. When picking through potential land mines in the Martinez family, she chooses her words with care, always finding ways to build up rather than tear down.
For example, she is a nutrition encyclopedia. When she married my brother, she set her sights on correcting his bad food choices. His diet was a meat-heavy, fat-laden, sweet tooth, high-cholesterol habit.
I would have blustered, “You are one, big heart attack waiting to happen. Lose the barbecue, man.” But Rie is a soft breeze.
“Steven-san enjoys his food. Perhaps better to like it less,” she said, petting his shoulders.
Steve preened like a star pupil who nearly got an A+ instead of a D- for disastrous diet. Rie’s voice was devoid of demands or exasperation or even sarcasm. I was amazed – no secret eye-rolling on the side.
And she is like water on a rock. Gently smoothing his surface objections with gradual but persistent changes: organic food, fish and vegetables. Voila! My brother inhabits a new, lean frame. Ask him how he did it, and Steve says, “Oh, I just don’t have a taste for all that junk anymore.” (As if he captained that ship.) I wait for Rie to voice my hidden thought and she never does.
Instead his wife smiles, “Steven-san is very good.” At first I thought her gentleness was largely cultural.
In Japanese society being direct can be considered impolite. Saying “no” outright is rude. In comparison, my sensibilities are more American. Let’s not beat around the bush. Please get to the point. And by the way, here’s my counterpoint. During most discussions, Rie listens and replies, “Ah, thank you for that insight” (and she really means it).
She’s no doormat though. I observe that to keep one’s ego in check and to avoid disputes takes strength of character. Lord knows I battle.
But no one ethnicity corners the market on kindly restraint. Nor is it a matter of just artfully avoiding squabbles. (Though kindness does reap those results.)
I’ve concluded Rie genuinely loves harmony and that desire is the underpinning in all her interactions, like Proverbs 3:17: “Her ways are pleasant ways and all her paths are peace.” I read that on a stained glass window once and thought of her.
Print and television bombard us with images that the loudest, the most aggressive, the strongest, the most outrageous person is the most powerful.
But actually, it’s the person we trust most not to hurt us. To them we unburden our heart. And what may feel like a hurtful truth offered by somebody else, feels like a helpful truth when offered by a kind and gentle spirit.
Because we trust her, Rie wields great influence about relationships, health, even new ideas like wearing Japanese patches that stick to the soles of the feet and draw toxins out of the body overnight. Like I said, she may speak quietly, but we listen.
Mainly, I learn from her how circumspect conversation has its own beauty. Like the time she sat next to me and quietly appraised my face, my clothes, my hair.
“I like,” she said simply.
Now she didn’t specify what she liked. Was it my tweed coat? My haircut? Was it the shade of the sky above my head? I guess I could decide for myself. So I assumed it was the whole enchilada. And drawing my own conclusion gave me great satisfaction.
I think I’m a diplomat, but there’s so much more to learn.
E-mail Suzette Standring:email@example.com.