We love to compare. We compare our skills to those of others. We compare how fast we can complete a task to the time it takes others to complete. We compare cars, houses, salaries, clothes. Games are largely based on competition. We work in teams in a business setting and often judge ourselves and our co-workers as if our business goals were game scores.
Salaries are competitive, and we often think of the things we buy as a sign of success. Bigger is better, and biggest must be best. There are even grammar rules for comparisons.
There Are Rules for Comparing—Words, That Is
When we compare adjectives, we call the basic adjective positive. The next better one is called comparative. The best is called superlative. So tall is positive, taller is comparative, and tallest is superlative. Regular adjectives all work the same way: long, longer, longest. Rich, richer, richest. High, higher, highest.
There are irregular adjectives, too. Good, better, best. Little, less, least. Much, more, most. Some words need a bit of help: colorful becomes more colorful and most colorful.
There are even absolute adjectives that come in one size–superlative. You can’t compare them. Unique is an example. It means, “one of a kind.” You can’t have something more unique or most unique. If it’s one of a kind, it is unique. That’s it. The same is true for daily, universal, complete, and fatal.
OK, grammar lesson is over now. Sorry, I teach this stuff and I actually believe that people are interested in how the language affects our culture.
I am also interested in how words affect our emotions. I teach a course called Stop, Drop, and Roll. It’s not a course on fire prevention, but close. The purpose is to cool down before you burn your career or bridges through anger and fear. Feeling uncomfortable often substitutes for reason when we make decisions. Class participants learn how their own personalities can be at conflict with another personality and use the differences to improve the relationship, improve the project, and improve the business.
I’m OK. You? Not So Much
One of the natural reactions that class participants have is to label themselves as “OK,” or “normal” and everyone who doesn’t agree as “wrong” or “not right for the job.” I was surprised at how deep that emotion runs.
You can see this odd idea in real life (or Facebook), too. One person posts a pet peeve and another person immediately compares their suffering to something catastrophic and then shames the person for feeling peeved.
For a while, it was quite witty to post “First World Problem!” as a comment to diminish the poster’s right to feel pain.
Of course, leaving your cell phone in the pocket of a coat you tried on in a boutique is a “first world problem.” We live in the first world. Our problems reflect that. Getting the phone back is annoying, takes time, and (if you no longer have a landline), requires borrowing a phone from a neighbor to phone the store and check if the phone is there and how long they are open.
Knowing that people are dying from preventable diseases in other countries does not make your dilemma disappear.
Comparisons Don’t Need To Be Competitive
Sometimes, we simply toss out comparisons to prove we are [insert comparative or superlative word here] than the other person. A friend mentions she’s worried about her father because he is ill; you jump in and talk about the devastation you felt when your mom died. Your friend is no longer allowed to be worried, all the emotional focus must fall on you. That’s not comparison, that’s manipulation.
One person says they have worked hard to lose 30 pounds; a friend replies that she has just lost 50 and is six dress sizes smaller. Your weight loss has just been dismissed.
I’m not a friend of competition and I’m not a friend of unequal or unfair comparisons.
A country is devastated by a hurricane–to the point where there is no fresh water, no electricity, no internet, no phone service, no food deliveries because there are no passable roads. When they are told that there have been worse hurricanes with bigger loss of life, they are being shamed for their suffering. A suffering they did not cause. Could not prevent.
The comparison is not fair—it does not compare like to like. It’s similar to a generation of children hearing, when they didn’t want to finish eating dinner, “Clean your plate, there are children starving in China.” Cleaning your plate does not help a single Chinese child. It just makes you feel guilty and angry that you have to eat when you aren’t hungry.
Before you offer your own story, listen deeply to the story of the other person. Please. You don’t need to win, listening is not a competitive sport, it is an offering of kindness. We all want to be heard. And we can do it for many others without diminishing ourselves. We grow through witnessing the lives of others.
—Quinn McDonald knows that language shapes a culture. She’s worried about how words (and people) are being dismissed and demeaned through language.