Monday, 7 July 2014

Stand up for yourself.

My children stand up for themselves and speak up. They do it especially when they want something like a treat, or when they don't want to do something like going to bed early. I've noticed that when it really matters to them, they don't just grumble, they actually put together an argument which urges me to see thinks a little clearer from their perspective. Most of the time it doesn't work, but every now and then, I get a case that is actually good enough to win them some sweets or an extra hour of cartoons. Most children are naturally self-assertive. It seems to be part of an inherent survival instinct that seems to say one should strive for that which one knows to be good and beneficial for oneself. The problem is that children have no peripheral vision and are rather blindsided to the bigger picture when they insist on getting their daily caloric needs from eating only chocolate, or waiting for you by the front door with their swimsuits in their hands while it's raining and thundering outside because "you promised to take us swimming today"! So they try, they learn and their horizon broadens.

By the time we become adults, we usually have learned from various interactions through school, work, family and friends to formulate our own personal premise, but many adults give up self-assertion and become passive in order to maintain relationships. It is important to note that there are different ways of standing up for oneself. The least favourable being that which portrays one as aggressive and confrontational. Not every battle needs to be fought and those that need fighting also need proper timing and proper tact. How do you pick your battles then? You start from within... by asking yourself the right questions. How does this make me feel? How important is this to me? Am I justified? Once you know where you stand, don't worry too much about the outcome.

Here's a scenario, a few weeks ago, my sister and I took our kids to see a dentist in Douala. The service was a surprisingly professional standard and a stark contrast to pretty much every other customer service we received in the city on the same day. At a boulangerie, the cashier plainly refused to serve me because she claimed she did not have change for my 2000Fancs CFA note bill. There was no one else in queue besides my sister and there were two women behind the counter, the cashier and another who seemed to have just woken up from a casual doze and was standing there in front of a stack of wrapping paper. It never crossed her mind that she would only actually have something to wrap if she took the customer service initiative to go and find some change. It seems I've become quite passive because though I was shocked, I stood there a little too long, money in hand, with a frustrated look on my face, eyeing the wrapping paper girl as if she would eventually read my thoughts. When the cashier said "next", my sister proceeded to give both employees a piece of her mind and a lesson on how poor customer service gets you little or no business. She gave them the option of getting change or loosing the opportunity to make two sales. Unfortunately, many employees here simply don't care and these particular two just stopped speaking all together, so we had no choice but to carry on to another store. I got a lesson on standing up for myself and a reminder that when your instinct tells you that a behaviour is wrong and undermines you, when you feel you are justified, being passive may seem to help avoid a conflict, but it also helps perpetuate the continuation of that behaviour. The only way to even hope for a change is to speak up.

Another scenario happened a couple of months ago. One evening, I joined my usual hangout gang at a born house (a ceremony to celebrate the birth of a child) and turned down the palm wine I was offered because I was driving (I normally don't turn down sweet palm wine). I proceeded to drink a warm pamplemouse and watch the women do the traditional singing and dancing that is expected at such an occasion, the kind that brings on lots of embarrassed giggling. Within a few minutes I noticed three little boys... they looked about 4 or 5 years old, they were drinking something out of white plastic party cups. Once each one had emptied his cup, they proceeded to an old lady who seemed to be guarding a keg of something underneath here chair. She poured each boy a good drink and I was shocked when I noticed it was palm wine. I brought it up with my companions, not sure if the woman was drunk at the time or out of her mind for serving very young children alcohol! The response I got was, "...this is Fiango and you don't know those children. If their parents don't seem to care, why do you want to make it your business"? That stopped me from proceeding further with my protest, but it bothered me a great deal. On the one hand, I was thinking "something is completely off about this and shouldn't be happening at all irrespective of what country and what neighbourhood I'm in". I felt justified, but I was forced to reevaluate how I felt and ask myself how much relevance my feelings had in that particular instance. What impact could I effectuate in a situation where no one saw things like I did? I backed down and felt really bad for it, but I learned that not everything I disagree with is my fight. If I try to make it mine, I have to be ready to encounter a lot of hostility I'm not ready for. I've decided I'm very ready to be labelled as being confrontational when it comes to my children, and I probably already have been, but I have to learn to take a minute before I tell other people how to raise their children.

Unlike my children who have not yet mastered the art of self-censoring, I am burdened with the duty to fully understand my own polemics in every instance where I feel the need to stand up for myself. Standing up, if it does nothing else, forces people to "check themselves", so to speak, reminding them that one is not a pushover and one is justified in one's own right. It forces people to step aside from polemics for a moment and emotionally reevaluate their position and whether or not they are being fair. It is easy to stand up with people who already understand and respect your argument, people who may not agree with you, but are able to compromise or back off completely because they value their relationship with you as well and they understand not to overstep certain boundaries that you have the right to. For everyone else, remember that you're more than likely not going to win, but giddy up anyway because it is your right and you really don't want to be the one rehearsing what you SHOULD HAVE said in the bathroom mirror the next morning! Take a load off and stand up for yourself. I do not do it to undermine anyone or to deprive them of their right. A lot of the times when I do it my voice might be shaking, but I do it anyway simply because it has to be done and I'm the only one who can do it for myself.
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