Our society has given “courage” a number of different definitions, most of which revolve around the ability to defend an unpopular principle, do something boldly countercultural, or otherwise take a stand.
But there is a variation of courage called “social” courage, a concept that has recently circulated in both popular media and academia. It’s gaining prominence in an age that is increasingly disconnected and lonely—an age that glorifies the independent, autonomous individual to the point of eradicating life-giving community in the day-to-day.
There’s no universally accepted definition of social courage, so it can seem like a nebulous concept. Generally speaking, it is a variation of courage itself, but specifically applied in certain social situations and to how we relate to the world. Perhaps it’s best understood through examples: when we’re children, social courage looks like sitting at the lunch table with the school pariah rather than making fun of her so you can fit in with the popular girls. In college, it may look like choosing not to drink at a party before turning 21 even though your friends are all imbibing.
In adulthood, however, social courage often manifests itself in subtler ways—and yet, it’s just as important. Choosing to be socially courageous can be as simple as engaging a stranger in conversation, but the collective fruit of these small opportunities can help bridge the divide between us and those who feel “other”—transforming the tenor of our culture from individualistic to communal.
The epidemic of loneliness
Even though technological advances constantly connect us to one another more than ever, we are nonetheless reporting skyrocketing levels of loneliness and feelings of isolation. A May 2018 study from Cigna reported that loneliness has reached “epidemic” levels in America, with nearly half of the respondents reporting “sometimes or always” feeling alone. The report also found that two in five Americans “sometimes or always” feel that their relationships are not meaningful and that they are isolated from others.
Various authors, academics, and nonprofits are working to shed light on this loneliness epidemic. One example is the annual event called New York Encounter, a three-day public forum in New York City featuring a host of panels on culturally-relevant topics. One panel discussed the loneliness epidemic in society and identified social courage as one way to heal the wounds caused by deep-seated, systemic loneliness. Panelist and author Emily Esfahani Smith, said that seeing another person as a “real, embodied, three-dimensional human being” is a powerful way to build meaning, as is “having conversations that really matter.”
To illustrate, Smith cited the example of a friend who lived and worked in New York City. Each morning, he would buy a newspaper from a street vendor. Although both he and the vendor had every incentive to rush through the transaction, they would stop for a moment to talk and get to know one another. Over the years, they developed a deep camaraderie. One day, Smith’s friend didn’t have the right change to purchase his paper and the vendor told him not to worry about it; the paper was on him. But her friend insisted and visited a nearby drug store to buy something he didn’t need in order to make change. When he returned to the vendor with the change, the vendor drew back and appeared wounded. By offering to cover the cost of the paper, the vendor had been trying, as Smith put it, to “raise the stakes of intimacy” between them. In refusing this gesture, Smith’s friend rejected the vendor’s “bid for affection.”
Smith’s story shows that we can build up a sense of belonging that cuts against our culture of loneliness, but we can also break it down through our actions and words. By choosing to be vulnerable, to accept acts of kindness from others, and to connect rather than to disengage, we can repair the wounds caused by our individualistic and isolating culture.
Understanding the loneliness epidemic highlights why social courage is so important. It can make a tremendous difference in disrupting our culture of loneliness and radical individualism by initiating a counter-cultural shift into community—viewing people as people rather than just passersby, opportunities to transact business, or worst of all, obstacles standing in our way.
It doesn’t take much, but small acts of social courage can make tremendous strides in the direction of a more connected, unified, and less lonely culture. So what does that look like for us, as modern women living in a post-social age?
01. Make eye contact and smile.
The simple act of looking at others and smiling is powerful because it shows that they matter. That they are worth noticing. That they are more important than the text messages or images on your smartphone screen.
02. Ask how someone’s day is going.
When I first started dating my now-husband, something that drew me to him was his genuine concern for everyone—from the janitor at our law school to the barista serving us coffee. He would always ask people how their days were going. It was evident that many of them had never been asked that question before while on the job. Some looked taken aback, while others broke into a huge grin. The simple act of asking someone how she is doing shows that she is more than just someone who cleans the halls or pours coffee—she is a human being with dignity, someone who matters.
03. Schedule a friend date with someone you admire.
Make the first move in asking someone to coffee or lunch. Often, others want to connect with us, but if we are not the first to reach out in authentic vulnerability, it may never happen. Being the first to make a move in initiating a friendship is a powerful way to exhibit—and spread—social courage.
04. Pay someone a compliment.
In a world where we are constantly rushed and pressed for time, taking a moment to stop and pay someone a sincere compliment can truly brighten her day. A simple “I like your coat” or “that color looks beautiful on you” can bring a smile to someone’s face. It’s more than just flattery: it is about showing a person that she is seen—that she matters enough for you to not only notice her but to call her out, even in a small way.
Instead of resigning ourselves to a standard of loneliness and isolation, let’s choose to be socially courageous. From engaging someone who feels marginalized to accepting a gesture of kindness from another, doing something that feels a little bit radical—even the smallest thing—has the power to change our culture.
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