family father mother daughter dispute screaming silhouette

Uncivil Behavior

Passover is a remembrance of bondage and a celebration of freedom. The story of Moses leading the Hebrews out of Egypt is another great story of the faith of God’s people and God’s faithfulness. I like Passover because it is celebrated in the home with family, around the dinner table. I, of course, like the traditional meal – there are always things you can count on – like at Thanksgiving. And the liturgy reminds us to continue to struggle against bondage – physical, political and spiritual. It is an invitation to allow the Divine to free us – and it is an invitation to examine our lives to see how we may be the source of bondage and oppression of others—or ourselves.

One example of interpersonal bondage takes place in one of the homes where I have Passover dinner. Frida (not her real name) lives in a huge condominium with a panoramic view of Los Angeles. Her home is filled with interesting people, extraordinary art, and some antique furniture. One of the things that you learn as a guest in Frida’s home is that some of the chairs are very fragile. If you lean back too far—the chair will break. So, the pattern for our gatherings is – a newcomer breaks an antique chair and old-timer takes it to be fixed. I am fairly comfortable sitting in a chair and not leaning back because I was raised by a Bostonian mother who taught me to sit with my back straight and my feet flat on the floor

(or crossed demurely at the ankles). So, I am among the few who have not broken a chair–yet.

However, the Passover liturgy is read at the table as part of the meal. And when you are sitting at the table for a couple of hours – and you have eaten a little too much, it is natural to stretch and lean back into the chair. And it is a natural occurrence for a chair to break – every year. It is one of the ways that we can tell who is new at Frida’s table. It is almost an initiation . . .

Someone always whispers to the new comer – don’t lean back in the chair—it doesn’t make sense until the chair breaks. It’s a way you can tell the insiders from the outsiders. It is hospitality that marginalizes.

In addition to suffering through the humiliation of breaking the hostesses’ chair, we have the phenomenon of the adult table and the children’s table to negotiate. If you have participated in large family gatherings, you probably have experienced the card table that is set up in the not-so-prime location, with mismatched chairs, the chipped plates, and paper napkins. It is often called the “children’s table.” Well, Frida’s table is definitely not a children’s table. It has linen napkins, matching china and antique chairs like the big table. But that’s what some of the guests call it.

Frida gathers an eclectic group of people around her—old and young; Jew and Gentile;

people who knew Frida, who is 90, in college; and people who have recently met her.

Some of the guests have been there many times; some are there for the first time. We have people in their 40s, people in their 60s, and people in their 80s at these gatherings.

Our hostess steers her most favored guests — and the older ones — to the big table. The younger ones always sit at the smaller table, and those of us in our 60s switch back and forth.

One year, in an attempt to be more inclusive, we 60-somethings switched tables between courses so we could have a chance to talk with more people. Interacting with the guests is important because there are very interesting people at Frida’s tables – artists, writers and entertainers – and the best conversations are often among the older people at the big table.

It is quite ironic that here, in this lovely home, on this night where we reflect on bondage and liberation that we observe, participate in, and are victims of micro-oppressions. We marginalize the newcomers by allowing them to sit in a chair that may break. We marginalize the younger people by making a “kids table.” We silence people by limiting their access to much of the conversation. We silence people by not being curious about what they might contribute to a conversation. The big table is large enough to hold serving platters. They small table is not. So although there is plenty of food for everyone, those at the small table have to get up and go to a platter if they want seconds; Those at the larger table do not. Marginalization and limited access – once again

Over the years, those of us who are aware of these mini-slights, have taken mini-steps to prevent or compensate for them.   There are others who are totally unaware of the subtle social subtext of the evening. And there are some who would absolutely deny that anything of the sort is going on. They would say that if people felt uncomfortable they were being overly sensitive. Frida is a lovely person and she would never intentionally discriminate against anyone. But it happens. And it is so subtle and so natural that no one complains and everyone who is invited, continues to come back. New comers are always honored to receive an invitation. The social stratification that takes place is just the way things are at Frida’s. And it will not change until someone within that small social system speaks up, or chooses not to participate and says why.

Micro oppressions, micro aggressions. Micro assaults. Silent assaults. Ridicule in the name of humor. Marginalization in the name of group unity. It happens everywhere. We live in a society where it is considered humorous to make fun of people. To watch them fall and then point at them and laugh. News readers report the news and then snicker about the people they report on. Late night talk show hosts mock celebrities, politicians, and ordinary people in their monologues

  • Shock Jocks make their living being rude and unkind– Howard Stern, Rush Limbaugh, Dr. Laura
  • TV shows prank anyone: children to seniors
  • Jerry Springer, Maury Povich, Judge Anybody, diminish, demean, and insult their guests

People who are perceived as non-compliant, defiant, defenseless, dangerous or different get bullied. And most of us do not have the courage to say, Ouch, No, Stop, or as witnesses say:

I saw you and that is not OK.

Bullying behavior is learned behavior. Children bully because adults bully each other and adults bully children. . . Civil behavior must be learned as well. To create a caring, safe culture, we must have norms and standards for how we as adults treat one another. We must stay vigilant to protect the cultural norms and to make it safe for everyone – including the people who are not quite like us. We must teach people what is OK and not OK to say to one another. And we must acquire the tools and skills for Verbal Self Defense – and then use them.

We must be vigilant, because microaggressions and microassaults, may come masquerading

as polite conversation. For example, Ron, I guy I dated, for far too long, wrote a poem to me in French. I don’t read French (I don’t speak it either), but thought it was very romantic to have a suitor write a poem in French — until I had it translated and learned he was not a very nice person.

I walked into an office last week, on a day that had been uniformly bad for me. One of those Alexander’s no good very bad days…. So, focused on feeling sorry for myself I left my Queen of Diversity robes in the car. Well the only person in the office was focused on her work and a bit annoyed, or puzzled, that I would want anything from her. This didn’t help my attitude at all. Then, I noticed that something was off about her, and after examining her hair and dress and shoes, and hands…. I realized she is transgender…. Providing me with one more annoying opportunity to check myself and to be reminded of where I need to grow.

And just to be clear, I wasn’t judging her about being transgender. My judgment was about her choice of hairstyle and clothes. A client told me recently that I need to lower my expectations and I have added to the goal – I need to stop being so judgmental. I cloak my bullying in fashion advice: You’d look so much better if you. . .Changed your hair, or lipstick or blouse. And be more like me.

We all do it. If they are not enough like us, or don’t meet our standards for how to be in the world. If we have any situational power at all, we push people to the edges of the circle. We use our words and gestures to maim and wound. As I child I learned that sticks and stones may break my bones. And as an adult I have learned, and words can kill you.

So I invite you to pay attention. Pay attention to the microassaults you fling upon those around you. Pay attention to the opportunities you have to be a witness to bullying: to say, I see you. That is not OK. Pay attention to the skills you need to hone to protect yourself from verbal violence. Pay attention to how uncomfortable it may be for someone who is not just like you, to be around you.

A long time ago Edwin Markham wrote:

He drew a circle that shut me out —

Heretic, rebel, a thing to flout.

But Love and I had the wit to win:

We drew a circle that took him in!


Draw your circles widely, and watch to be sure you don’t marginalize or microassault unintentionally. And when you see someone who is about to sit or stretch in the chair that is destined to break. Speak up. Before they sit down.


Read More About It:

  • Suzette Elgin. The Gentle Art of Verbal Self-Defense.
  • Margaret Wheatley. Turning to One Another.
  • Kikanza Nuri-Robins, Lewis Bundy. Fish Out of Water.


Kikanza Nuri-Robins is an ordained Presbyterian minister, who works as an organizational development consultant. She serves people and organizations that are in transition – or ought to be – helping them with issues of leadership, change, diversity and spirituality.

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