What would you do if you encountered a group of teens engaged in a particularly nasty gossip session? Most of us might do our best to try to tune them out or file the encounter away in our “glad I never have to be a teenager anymore” internal file. The person who would confront a pack of savage adolescents is rare indeed, but that’s just what one mom and author did in a North Carolina Starbucks.
Michelle Icard telecommutes for work, so she’s a regular at her local chain coffee shop, where she says she was privy to a conversation that had her “crawling out of her skin” when she overheard three high school girls mocking a fourth girl. So she wrote them a note, calling them mean and petty, she said, with the hope of urging them to be more kind.
Here’s Icard’s recollection of the conversation that induced said skin-crawly feelings and compelled her to step in and take action:
And here’s the action she took, in handwritten note form, dropped on the table as Icard made a hasty exit. It starts just below the fold and then continues at the top of the page.
We have to be honest — something about this entire situation and the reaction it has gotten just rubs us the wrong way.
We all know a “mean girl” or even a whole troop of them. It’s a common enough stereotype: Teenage girls (and adult women) are awful, catty humans who can’t help but tear one another down. They love to engage in behavior that, while it might make other people feel awful or shame, bolsters their own self-esteem. They’re even proud of themselves when they can make another person feel terrible. They get validation from their peers, and that makes sure the cycle remains strong.
It’s no doubt uncomfortable to listen to people be nasty to one another. We’ve probably all been in a situation where it occurs, and you’re faced with a choice — either let the disparaging comments and snickers slide, thereby lending your silent consent to the continuation of the behavior, or speak up and say something with the hope that you’ll have a part in ending it.
Certainly we think Icard hoped to do the latter. And had it ended there, a simple note or even a conversation with the girls might have shown them that words do matter and that there are other ways to express yourself that don’t involve making another person the butt of your jokes and sneers.
Unfortunately that’s not what happened. Icard dropped the note and then bounced quick, and now it’s circulating with plenty of “you go, girl” cries of validation and more than a few criticisms at the girls’ expense. Now there’s a whole conversation surrounding a bunch of children — and let’s remember that these are children — who aren’t even around to speak in their own defense. Icard’s reputation and self-esteem, if her repeated shares and reshares of the attention this note has gotten are any indication, are being absolutely bolstered at the expense of these kids.
It is beyond embarrassing to be called out, even when that callout is very much deserved. That’s why it’s such a popular technique: The idea is that you can shame people into stopping negative behavior. And kids are ripe for calling out. They do dumb, nasty and downright mean things to themselves and to one another. How many times have you thought to yourself, “God, I’m so glad social media wasn’t a thing when I was a kid.” Would you like it if your mistakes, missteps and mean-girl moments were broadcast for all the world to see? As an adult, probably not. As a kid? Devastating.
There’s a place for stepping in. When you hear a kid being awful to another kid, it’s admirable to defend the person who isn’t there to do it themselves. And in that Starbucks, that was the moment.