On a recent evening, I was walking through my neighborhood. I had just crossed an intersection and was making my way along a sidewalk that bordered a busy street. From behind me, I suddenly heard “You almost hit me, you ***!” A woman in a car at the stop sign then aimed a few obscenities at the person in the car behind her, and proceeded to stop short a few more times along the busy street, so that the car behind her was forced to slam on its brakes.
I didn’t know anything about the people involved, or what pain was going on in the woman’s life to elicit such a response. But her words cut through me, and left me as raw as if they were aimed at me.
In recent weeks, and especially because COVID-19 has diminished opportunities for in-person interactions, I have been spending far too many hours in the world of social media. And here, too, I often leave feeling scathed by barbed remarks that seem aimed primarily to wound, rather than to educate or enlighten.
What I’ve wished for in many parts of life recently is a bit more gentleness.
The term “gentleness,” as it’s broadly used, has some misleading connotations. Through personal experience, I’ve learned to equate the word “gentle” with “weakness,” “being a pushover,” and “being too nice.” In counterpoint, I think of inspirational ads I’ve encountered from brands like Always and Nike that positively portray women as strong, toned, ready to compete and fight their way to the finish. This branding is good. Women are mentally, physically, and emotionally strong, and I’m glad brands are recognizing this reality and conveying this message to more people.
What I see less of in branding that seeks to empower women is the strength it takes to be a careful listener or a person sensitive to the feelings of others. I don’t see ads where women (or men) take time to choose the right words that will both respond well and truthfully to another person, while also recognizing the other person’s dignity. I’ve never seen a brand that validates the immense desire to cry in the midst of the very real pain of the world. These actions in modern parlance are often brushed off as “doing nothing,” or worse, “falling apart.” And perhaps some women don’t want to highlight these qualities because they come too close to the unjust—and false—stereotypes of women as weaker than men.
A more nuanced view of gentleness
But can’t gentleness also be empowering? When it comes to gentleness and strength, might they be two sides of the same coin?
One of Verily’s Daily Doses caught my eye a few years ago: “Nothing is so strong as gentleness, nothing so gentle as real strength.” I wonder how these words of Francis de Sales, a seventeenth-century priest, are applicable to my life as a twenty-first-century woman. What does being gentle even mean in today’s society?
A quick internet search reveals that there’s a bit of a void in the topic of gentleness. Christian sites talk about it as a virtue to be cultivated; psychology sites describe it as a personality type; in the realm of self-care, I’m encouraged to regard and treat myself with gentleness. When brands try to sell something as “gentle,” it’s usually a skincare or beauty product, not a trait to which people should aspire. We don’t seem to possess a comprehensive definition for gentleness.
Still, there are some who are taking on this topic with slightly different verbiage. One is Aundi Kolber, a therapist and author who has written a book encouraging people to “try softer.” In a recent article for Verily, Kolber says,
We live in a culture that constantly asks us to ignore, suppress, stifle, numb, and shame our bodies and emotions. When we disconnect from our bodies in this way, because of trauma or culture or the systems we exist in, our ability to tolerate and process our experiences diminishes, and those emotions and experiences that we’ve tried to lock away come out sideways.
Kolber’s antidote to this disconnect is to “learn to pay compassionate attention to our internal experiences so we can respond to our bodies and emotions appropriately.” In a word, Kolber recommends a holistic gentleness toward oneself.
As a woman, I find Kolber’s perspective both spot-on and also a challenge to follow because the culture not only encourages us to be ungentle with our bodies and emotions, but also with those around us. Our ideas, values, and even identities are often scrutinized under the harsh lens of public view by people who know us very little. But what if there were more situations where we felt comfortable to truly be ourselves, to know we could speak and be met with generosity and kindness from people who truly know us?
A truer definition of gentleness
In looking for a more comprehensive definition of gentleness, I stumbled upon a 2017 Medium article that describes a collaborative hospitality event that allowed the writer to “accommodate the strange—that thing or quality that is different from what I experience.” In the article, three different aspects of hospitality are examined: “Hospitality of place,” which “allows us to host the stranger”; “Hospitality of mind,” which “allows us to host strange ideas”; and “Hospitality of heart,” which “allows us to host strange ways of loving.” I couldn’t help noticing that these aspects of hospitality are just what seems to be lacking from modern discussions of gentleness.
A truer definition of gentleness as making for others a space where they can be themselves comfortably is perhaps an antidote to the many ways in which we’re encouraged to strengthen ourselves against each other (see comment sections on social media), especially in socially and politically divisive seasons. This leads me to wonder if gentleness is less an inherent personality trait than a skill to be cultivated in both men and women. Gentleness is not erasure of one’s own personality as much as it is an opening of oneself to others. Like hospitality, where a person opens one’s home to guests, gentleness may operate principally in a person’s orientation towards others—wanting to know them and to care for them in spite of differences in opinion, personality, or value systems.
By this definition, gentleness requires strength. And, fortunately, strength itself has become a more nuanced term, encompassing not merely physical ability, but also mental and spiritual grit.
A quick internet search reveals that strength is often used to describe people who have been vulnerable in some way. Maybe they have survived trauma or worked through a difficult situation, (of which 2020 alone has been full). To be hospitable to the thoughts and voices of others—especially those with whom we disagree—is a vulnerability all its own. To listen when the world is (often rightfully) in a fever-pitch over the latest news, takes strength because the tendency is to steel oneself against the noise, but gentleness encourages me to make room and still offer the invitation to “come in.” To mentally keep the door open does not mean being a “doormat,” because to be able to make room for others requires that I operate from a deep knowledge of my personal bandwidth and boundaries. (How can I give what I do not have?) Gentleness emboldens me to meet people with greater honesty—to more often say, “Tell me more,” “I don’t know,” and “I’d like to learn more.”
The cultural beef with gentleness
Though the cultivation of gentleness is not at odds with modern womanhood, it seems that our culture has set gentleness to one side. Perhaps it’s the complicated connotations mentioned above, as well as the mid-nineteenth century characterization of women as the “the gentler sex” that feeds our cultural beef with gentleness. But it may also be the way in which society itself is structured.
Sometimes, in an attempt to adapt, we women try to set aside our traits that do not seem to align with what’s seen as powerful, self-sufficient, and “productive” under this culture’s definition of success. Case in point: how we work. A 2018 British Psychological Society article on traits in male and female bosses points toward the fact that women have to adapt more in work spaces to be seen as a leader:
Men and women in non-leadership roles differed in their personality traits in ways consistent with the existing literature—for instance, women scored higher than men on characteristics associated with being more agreeable, such as being cooperative and people-oriented, while scoring lower on emotional stability and aspects of extraversion. In contrast, the personalities of male and female bosses were far more similar, with many sex-linked differences absent altogether or greatly attenuated (although the women still scored higher on aspects of agreeableness).
What this article refers to as “classically female traits” are not often seen as leadership-worthy, and I think this is where the quality of gentleness often gets thrust aside in both work and online environments. Women have also classically been seen as nurturers, and because of the ways work and social environments have been imagined and shaped, qualities like caring deeply, agreeableness, and even cooperativeness are not always seen as strengths, especially in leadership roles.
The disregard for gentleness also abounds online, and it’s worth noting that men and women experience this lack of gentleness differently. According to a 2017 Pew Research Center report on men and women’s experiences of online harassment, data seems to suggest that women and men place contrasting values on the various usages of social media, and express different concerns about content:
Women are also much more likely than men to say people should be able to feel welcome and safe in online spaces (63% to 43%), while men are more likely than women to say it is important for people to be able to speak their minds freely online (56% to 36%). Similarly, half of women say that offensive content online is too often excused as not being a big deal, whereas 64% of men—and 73% of men ages 18 to 29—say that many people take this type of content too seriously.
Among the women of this survey, there seems to be a higher regard for the relationality that online spaces can promote—or hinder. The data given here suggests that at work, online, and in society, there’s still room for making these spaces more hospitable for women. It also suggests that the definition of gentleness needs to continue to be re-imagined so that the true dynamism of the trait shines through.
The British Psychological Society article makes a stellar point in its exploration of how to get more women into leadership: the focus should not be on asking women to change for their workplaces. Rather, their workplaces should change for them. By extension, this means that workplaces should also better value the classically feminine traits our culture has dismissed as being useful only in particular spheres (like the home). This is what a modern gentleness creates—a space for both men and women to more freely express their individual personalities in ways that don’t work against them, not only in the workplace, but in other social environments as well.
Imagine a social media landscape where gentleness toward others was the modus operandi. Imagine a work environment where gentleness was a quality valued and looked for in potential employees and leaders. Imagine a world in which strength wasn’t pitted against gentleness, but seen as one and the same. Let’s reclaim gentleness as a strength.